Junkyard Gladiators: The 2021 Destruction Derby
Turning onto Main Street on the evening of September 5th, 2021, you would find an unusual occurrence in Bishop – traffic. A solid line of cars runs all the way from Highway 6 to Sierra Street, where the line keeps going to the gates of the Tri-County Fairgrounds. Once inside the gates, parking is scarce – many people find a good spot in the surrounding neighborhoods and walk in, and once inside there’s yet another, longer line to get into the fair itself. Bishop is not known for mass crowds of people clogging the streets, yet they make an exception for this once a year event; the Destruction Derby.
Throughout the year, a small number of dedicated competitors works day and night, fixing up a junkyard car. They paint it in bright colors – green, red, blue, or orange, with their sponsor’s name across the side. It doesn’t need to look perfect, it just needs to run.
As the crowd gathers in the grandstands, the cars zoom one by one into the arena to thunderous applause. Some waving American flags, some with people perched on the top, one even sporting flashing police lights. Many local businesses show up at the Derby, painted on the sides of the cars; Dean’s Plumbing, Steve’s Auto Parts, and Britt’s Diesel, to name a few. Rusty’s Bar gets the most people up on their feet, stomping and cheering.
There’s formalities before the actual event begins. Marianne Schat (Schat’s Bakery) takes center stage to sing our National Anthem, and this year a tribute has been put together to honor the thirteen soldiers that died overseas in Afghanistan. The announcer reads the thirteen names, their ages, and their hometowns, and the crowd falls into a moment of silence.
It takes a moment for the somber mood to lift and the energy to return to the crowd, but the revving of the car’s engines starting up get everyone excited. A man in an orange vest steps forward with a shotgun and fires it into the air, a bang that releases a cloud of smoke, and the Derby begins.
Are there words to describe the Destruction Derby? Not really. It’s an experience you can’t know until you’ve been there, in the bleachers or in the pit. But for those unfortunate enough to never witness the Derby in person, I’ll try.
Imagine watching a car crash. Imagine watching multiple car crashes, in the span of three minutes. Then imagine that you and everyone else around you are having the best time of their life watching these car crashes.
That’s the Destruction Derby.
It’s a gladiator fight, where the weapon of choice is a reconstructed junkyard car. Your throat burns with exhaust and dust, but your trauma-induced fear of coughing around other people (thanks COVID-19!) makes you hold it in for some reason. You were already half deaf from how loud the crowd was, and now you’re three-quarters deaf from the unbelievably loud sound of fifteen engines revving at the same time. For some reason, the audible crunch of two cars slamming into one another releases mass amounts of serotonin in your brain. This isn’t like an organized sports game where you only cheer for your team. No, it doesn’t matter what car you want to win, you’re gonna whoop till your throat’s hoarse for whatever car is winning.
If you’re reading this from an apartment in some city, you might scoff and think, “I wouldn’t enjoy that. That doesn’t sound fun.” Well, I’ve got some news for you. It is physically impossible to not enjoy yourself at the Destruction Derby. Maybe it’s a primal instinct, maybe we’re all being mind controlled, but it does not matter what kind of person you are. If you’ve never shouted “yeehaw!” in your life, you’re about to, whether you like it or not.
At the end of each round, the last cars still standing drive out of the ring, and Mr. K’s Automotive takes the stage, dragging out the smoking and sparking cars while a tractor does the rounds, flattening the field again. It’s at this time that they’ll play some music, and this can be anything from Sweet Caroline to Baby Shark.
Once all the cars are out and the dirt has been raked smooth again, the working cars will return to the ring and battle it out again. This will go on for pretty much the entire night – before you know it, time has flown by. There are several divisions – powder puff, compact cars, and this year they’ve added mini trucks. However, the one everyone is here to see is the Main Event, the final round between the big cars, where if all goes as the Lord intended, there should be one winner.
The crowd is at highest energy as the final round starts. Soon, it’s just three cars still running in the ring, numbered 00, 01, and 6E. It seems like they’ll be chasing each other around the track forever, until 6E finally emerges victorious, the other two cars stuck in the dirt and still trying to free themselves when the shotgun goes off to signal the end of the round. The driver stands on top of his car, even doing a back flip off of the ruined trunk, to the cheers of the crowd.
Since the pandemic changed our lives forever in 2020, it seemed that social gatherings and any group activities would be a thing of the past. Last Labor Day Weekend, the stadium and fairgrounds were empty, and this year, they’re back at capacity. As all things do, it will probably get worse before it gets better, but the gradual return to normal is a refreshing light at the end of the tunnel.
Visit the Tri-County Fairgrounds website to learn more about the Destruction Derby and upcoming events.