There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Everybody at Larry’s Towing gets smashed this time of year.
“This is our time,” says “Little Larry” Paschal, manager of the Fort Washington wrecker service.
It’s derby season. Demolition derby season.
Legend has it that the sport Paschal loves mostbasically bumper cars for adultsevolved from a 1959 incident at Islip Speedway on Long Island. A driver competing in a standard stock car race was involved in a scary crash, and after crawling from the wreckage he noticed that the fans were keeping their eyes on the smashed autos and ignoring the race. Soon enough, the crash victim started promoting events at the speedway that did away with the racing and cut right to the demolition. Last car running wins.
The crowds ate it up, and as dangerous as the contest looked, nobody was getting hurt. So the demolition craze spread from Long Island in a hurryit hit the Washington region particularly hard.
“We had a great derby circuit in this area,” recalls Earl “Tex” Whitehouse, manager of the towing service of Andrew’s Auto Body in Suitland and a retired derby driver.
Whitehouse, 55, used to go derbying two or three times a month. He was derby champion at Rosecroft, Beltsville, and Dorsey Speedways during the sport’s heyday in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Whitehouse qualified for three world championship derbies when the event was run at Islip Speedway and broadcast each year on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
Whitehouse no longer gets behind the wheel, but he does organize the annual Silver Hill Lions Club Demolition Derby at Potomac Speedway at Budd’s Creek. A lot about derbying hasn’t changed since Whitehouse’s day. People still don’t get hurt, for starters. Bigger is still better: Old-school Detroit steel, such as full-sized Caddies and Lincoln Continentals, remains in vogue. And overhead isn’t heavyengineering and materials changes have made it harder to get feasible derby cars, but with some digging you can still nail a good ride for less than $100, or about what you can fetch for the carcass from scrap dealers after the derby.
But there’s never been a way to make a living as a derby driver. Even when the world championship was nationally broadcast, the derby champion’s bounty was a mere $1,500. “If you didn’t win the championship, you got nothing,” laments Whitehouse, who never got paid in Islip. The winner of the Lions Club derby, one of the bigger annual derbies in the area, will bring home only $500.
Tactics haven’t changed much, either. The winning formula, say Whitehouse and other drivers, still boils down to: strip the car down, protect the radiator, and try not to get sandwiched. Playing possum rarely works, since drivers make it a point to hunt down suspected “sandbaggers.”
“As I told Cris Economaki on Wide World of Sports, there’s some luck involved,” says Whitehouse, who used to eliminate all but first gear and reverse from his cars before entering a derby.
What has changed about the sport, however, is the big crash in the number of derbies held, both here and nationally. The primary reason for the decline, according to Whitehouse, isn’t a waning in the sport’s popularity among drivers or fans, but a dearth of speedways and a dwindling supply of autos. The list of dearly departed derby tracks includes all three tracks where Whitehouse reigned as king.
With fewer tracks, the local derby circuit died out, and derbies are now generally held only in August and September, often in conjunction with state or county fairs. So when the shortened derby season nears, drivers get itchy.
Paschal can’t wait to start banging around again. He’s been spending a lot of time around the shop prettying up a 1974 Cadillac Fleetwood. He wants the beloved land barge to look sharp when he wrecks it at Potomac Speedway next month in the Lions Club derby.
The Caddy is but one of around 20 of the barely viable “veehickles” that he and other Larry’s Towing staffers will reduce to scrap before what is always a packed, roaring house.
Paschal ran his first derby in 1980 at Rosecroft, back before it was turned over to the horses. He’d just turned 16. Now 34, Paschal admits he isn’t nearly as reckless as he used to be, but the thrill of derbying isn’t gone. Far from it.
“My first time out, I got hit and my car flipped on its side,” he recalls. “Man, that was fun. It’s still fun. You can get hooked on it. Every time I do it, I can’t wait to do it again.”
Mark “Stinky” Hoffman can’t wait for next Friday. He’ll paint his trademark Pepe Lepew character on the hood of a 1975 Pontiac Gran Prix before reducing it to fertilizer at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair’s derby, which brings in 150 to 175 cars each year. (Regional differences can impact derby rules: Only Volvos and Mercedes-Benzes are banned from the Montgomery County event; the Lions Club simply prohibits “hearses and ambulances.”) Hoffman, a Mount Rainier resident, got his Gran Prix at auction from Goodwill for $50.
“They didn’t give me a title, but I don’t need one,” he says. “By the time I get done, you won’t be able to tell if it was a Gran Prix or a Sunbird.”
Hoffman, 28, got hooked on derbying at 14. Within a few years, he was running in every derby in the Mid-Atlantic region. At the time, he operated a towing yardalmost every regular derby driver has a close connection to the towing industryand confesses that he only took that job to support his avocation. Hoffman kept the inventory at his yard up by any means necessary, including running classified advertisements (“Will Haul Junk Cars for Free!”) and convincing a local radio traffic reporter to keep an eye toward the ground from his helicopter to look for abandoned cars.
“At any time, I had about 20 cars stripped, ready to go run a derby, just waiting for me in the tow yard,” Hoffman says.
But times have gotten hard for Hoffman. He hasn’t run the tow yard for years, and he says he’s had trouble staying employed. He’s currently on disability for a mental illness and depends on charity or sponsorship to get his derbying fundsfor $10, he’ll spray-paint your business’s name on a fender; $100 gets the whole car. Even so, after the Montgomery County shindig, he hopes he’ll be able to procure another car in time for the Lions Club derby, too.
The good news, Hoffman adds with a chuckle, is that his condition gives him a good comeback whenever anybody questions the intensity of his passion for crashing cars.
“When somebody finds out how much I love derbies, they always tell me I’m crazy,” Hoffman says. “I say, ‘Tell me something I don’t already know!’”Dave McKenna
The Montgomery County Agricultural Fair derby will be held Aug. 28 and 29 at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in Gaithersburg. Tickets are $10. For information, call (301) 963-3247.
The Silver Hill Lions Club Demolition Derby will be held Sept. 11 and 12 at Potomac Speedway at Budd’s Creek. Tickets are $6-$12. For information, call (301) 297-4880.