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Stanley “Rocka” Smith knows that his wife will have her share of crashes this summer. He’ll have plenty himself, too. So will son Kenny. The youngest Smith child, Tabithawell, she’s not quite old enough to smash cars alongside the rest of her family just yet. But Dad hopes she’ll soon have the desire, so he has her out back behind the wheel of an old set of wheels, practicing for the same time next year.
It’s demolition-derby time. That’s high season in the Smith household.
“We’ve been planning for this year-round,” says Rocka. “It’s all we talk about. We could be at a wedding, and [as] the bride and groom are taking their first dance, we’re talking about derby cars.”
It’s not just talk. Most weekends, the Smiths take long drives together through the back roads of rural Virginia in search of discarded cars that less discerning connoisseurs might regard as junk. Auctions, where nontitled, barely operational vehicles can be had for as little as $15, are another source of the Smiths’ derby cars. Once procured, the autos must be made battle-ready. Mainly, the prep work entails removing any components that, appendixlike, can be done without. In the Smiths’ case, derby preparation also means painting “It’s a Family Thing” on the hood of each auto.
Among the 20-vehicle arsenal now stored on the lot of their Manassas crash pad is some of the heaviest, most dependable metal ever to roll off a Motor City assembly line. Early-’70s Dodges, Oldsmobiles, and Chryslers, and nine-passenger Chevy station wagons, are particularly coveted by the Smiths, as they would be by any demo driver.
That’s a lot of steel, for sure, but the Smiths may well need it all. The life expectancy of a typical car isn’t much beyond one derby. By the end of the fall, the family plans to have run in at least six different derbies, usually with more than one family member entered, often with more than one car per driver.
Derby historians trace the demolition derby back to Islip Speedway on Long Island in 1958, when a minor-league stock-car driver named Larry Mendelsohn figured that because most folks come to races just for the crashes, he might as well eliminate the middleman and give them what they want: all crashes, all the time. Then, as now, the only rule that mattered was that the last man running won. Soon enough, tracks across the country were holding their own derbies, and the spectacles were smashing successes at state and county fairs everywhere.
Neither cultural shifts nor trial lawyers have been able to kill the beast yet.
Except for promoters, nobody makes money from derbies: The top prize for drivers rarely exceeds a few hundred dollars. The Smiths, however, still like the bang they get for their bucks.
“We started out doing it for fun, and it’s still just for the fun,” says Rocka. “We work on these cars for a few months straight, and we get out there and we get to run around for 15 minutes and it’s over. If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll walk away with $200 for all the work, so it’s not worth the money. But you gotta find thrills in life. I don’t have the patience to fish, and I don’t think I should walk through the woods looking for a deer to shoot. I run derbies, and I’ll run them until I can’t climb in a car.”
Rocka, 42 and a Manassas native, traces his addiction to the sport, or whatever you want to call it, back to the summer of 1989. “I’d always gone to the fairs and watched derbies and wondered what it would be like to actually run in one,” he says. “Then, one day, a guy parked an old Chevy Impala at the end of my driveway with a ‘For Sale’ sign on it. It just sat there for months and nobody bought it, and he finally says to me, ‘You know anybody who can just get rid of it?’ I said I could. He came by my house the next day, and I’d already taken all the windows out. ‘I’m putting it in the derby!’ I told him. I don’t think he was real happy, but I did.”
Theda Smith, Rocka’s childhood sweetheart and wife of 22 years, got the derby bug soon after. She started as his crew chief, then pressured him to get her a car of her own. Just as there are not many rules to derbies, there’s not a whole lot of strategy in demo driving. For the typical competitor, it comes down to “Lead with your rear end,” meaning Lizzie Grubman showed proper derby technique when she allegedly put her Mercedes SUV into reverse before plowing into a crowd in the Hamptons. And though injuries are possibleRocka lost three teeth (still unreplaced) after smashing his face on a steering wheel afterduring a blindside hitderbies look a lot more dangerous than they really are. Even so, women aren’t always welcome in the main events. Some promoters put on ladies-only “powder puff” demos. But Theda wanted to run with the big boys. Rocka finally stopped trying to keep her out.
“She’s little, and I was worried about her,” Rocka says. “I didn’t want to see her hurt. There weren’t other women doing them when she started. But, when she finally got in there, she showed she was as good a driver as any of the men.”
Theda, 39, says the antagonism she still occasionally encounters from male competitors and their spouses only fuels her desire to smash up the competition.
“People tell me it’s not a place for women, especially mothers, and that bothered me at first. But I figure they’re just old-fashioned people, and everybody is entitled to an opinion,” she says. “In my opinion, I like the sport, so I’m going to keep on doing it.” Theda thinks the derby is a fit place for her daughter Tabitha, now 17, and hopes she’ll enter when she turns 18, the minimum driving age for most demos.
One adversary who has grown to respect Theda’s derby deftness is Mark “Stinky” Hoffman of Mount Rainier, Md., whose own crashing compulsion is so severe that he started his own auto salvage yard to help the flow of demo cars.
“I’ve gone against that woman from Manassas a few times,” says Hoffman. “You don’t run into too many women, but she’s balls to the wall, man. Or, in her case, ovaries to the wall. She’s tough.”
Kenny Smith, who has been derby driving for three years, appreciates Mom’s panache. “I think it’s awesome that she just doesn’t hold back,” he says. “You see this little woman getting banged around, her head flying all over the place. Nothing scares her.”
As always, Rocka, an electrician by trade, will take his summer vacation the week of the Prince William County Fair, which will be held August 10 to 18. According to attendance figures, derbies have long been the most popular attraction of that fairwhich explains why this year organizers have set aside three nights just for the demos. The Smiths will enter all the derbies, and Rocka and Theda will both have cars in two heats each night. Over the years, they’ve occasionally been entered in the same heats, but it’s never come down to just Smith vs. Smith for a championship. To preserve tranquility at home, Theda would prefer that such a matchup not occur. It’s a family thing, after all. But the odds are that it will eventually happen. And she’s ready.
“Rocka’s sister told me that if it’s just me and my husband left running, I should turn off my engine and let him win,” she says. “But if it’s just me and him, he wouldn’t want me to give up, and I’m not going to give up. We’re going to go at it.” Dave McKenna