My story begins in a parking lot outside of the Brockton RMV, where I’m watching a man in a chicken suit wave at cars for a local auto insurance company. I take it as a sign of what’s to come.
I drove down to the City of Champions to meet with the organizers behind the Woodbooger Demolition Derby, the main festivity for 15 years and running at the Brockton State Fair. As one of the largest paying derbies on the East Coast—the 2015 Woodbooger had a whopping $10,000 prize that anyone from seasoned combat drivers to your aunt Ethel could take home—it’s already quite the annual attraction. This year, however, packed some extra cachet, as there’s speculation that it could be the last, since Brockton Fair owner George Carney is reportedly working to bring a $650 million casino to the 45-acre fairgrounds. (There’s also an annual Woodbooger derby at the Hopkinton State Fair, which starts this Friday).
As slots and parlors loom since locals voted for a casino in May, I’m about to make the worst decision imaginable short of betting all my rent money on black. Under the shadow of a beautiful if not condemned brick belltower, as six days of smash-up qualifying events heat up in the gladiatorial 20,000 square foot arena, I join the qualifying derby among a gaggle of female contestants and assorted randoms like me.
But first the backstory. This all began on a blistering afternoon a couple of weeks before the event, when I met with Woodbooger co-founder Jim Mann and derby MC and court jester Steve Bucknam in the center of the Brockton track. The purpose of the trip, if for no other, was to see the very ground where I would meet my doom. And to possibly sign the required waiver, which tends to be a sign of painful things to come.
On that initial visit to the fairgrounds I arrived too early, so I ducked into a old-school haunt promising KENO and cold beer down the street. After pausing to watch someone get arrested near the parking lot by three undercover cops, one of whom pulled a gun out of the perp’s car, I made my way into the dive and took a stool under a cascade of old drop ceiling tiles interlaced with exposed beams. The walls, slapped-together slabs of diagonal plywood, were covered with an expected but nevertheless impressive photo spread of local sports legends, with the pride of Brockton boxing, Rocky Marciano, claiming the most real estate.
After some townies shot me wayward glances, I finished up my beer and went to meet with Mann and Bucknam for my orientation. Call me what you want, but for a moment I was nervous about getting beaten in the KENO bar. That fear ended—or rather was replaced—when I got to the fair, though. From that point on, and for the two weeks leading up to my Brockton burial, the only things that I could think about were climbing behind the derby wheel and whatever masochistic vehicular pugilism the Woodbooger had in store for yours truly.
Mann has salt and pepper hair, a weathered but cherubic smile, and wide oil-stained hands that know their way around an engine. He and his wife (and Woodbooger co-founder), Eileen, met in 1996 at the Brockton State Fair, where she was driving in her first demo derby. They married in 2001, and have been racing together ever since; Eileen won the Hopkinton State Fair demolition derby in 2006, vanquishing Jim, while another year they took home the Northeast Championships as a pair.
As hosts, the Manns say they want to create a show that is inclusive and available to anyone who wants to enter, and where everybody has a shot at the top prize. With this year being the biggest payout to date (by contrast, the Hopkinton course has a mere $7,000 purse), the excitement brings an invigorated charge for players old and new, including the humiliatingly titled “powder puff” heat in which I have been lumped.
“We started doing those a few years ago after my sister said she wanted to give the derby a go,” said Eileen about the women’s competition. “We had never done it before. Now this year has taken on a life of its own, with 10 to 12 women drivers, all rookies for the most part.”
Overall, men, women, and reporters included, there are more than 300 cars competing, with the grand prize as well as various other victor packages provided by local sponsors. Unlike pro or even college sports, all parts of the derby seem to be by and for the people.
“The average Joe who knocked the glass out of his Buick in the backyard can come here and really has a chance to win it,” says Jim. Adds Bucknam: “And we keep it that way … Our rules are set up so you could literally find a car on Craigslist, go put a 20-day plate on it, drive it here, smash the glass out of it, run it in the derby, and walk away, catch a ride home.”
Or, if you aren’t so inclined, Mann and his team work with a local junkyard so that people can obtain and even decorate a beater on the spot for $100. After the race, the same junkers will salvage whatever’s left, or send the remnants to a graveyard for good. It’s through this particular perks program that I am provided with a brain-matter gray 1995 Saturn for my forthcoming race. It all comes down to this.
Bucknam lets me know I’m not the first hot-shit reporter to give his track a whirl. A journalist from Chronicle did a segment a few derbies back and got more banged up than anticipated. “She got hauled out by the meat wagon,” Bucknam says.
That pleasant historical nugget bangs about my mind when I arrive on the day of the race. As I pull into the fairgrounds, a fire engine roars past with its sirens blaring—another sign that I may need one, and soon. This isn’t going well already, as I learn that it is critically important to control one’s nerves in this sport; there is a major risk of injury for novices as well as veterans, and that’s only exacerbated when you tense up.
“I’ve been driving for 30 years, and I put my teeth through my lip twice,” Jim says. “I was out in New York a couple years ago, and I got hit so hard that if I didn’t have a seat belt I’d have been laying out on the hood.”
War stories aside, safety is the primary concern, and Mann says his events typically go smoothly. Some people, however, are stupid. “We had one guy out here from Ohio, and he didn’t attach his seatbelt on purpose—said he doesn’t like to drive with it,” Steve says. “He got hit in the passenger side and it knocked him clear out of the seat, and he basically landed on the floor and hit the shifter. Bruised his knee and cracked a rib … But it was his own goddamned fault.”
The people are important, but so is the machinery. Cars are subject to a serious rogering before the race, with bumpers and plastic pieces torn off, along with anything that could dislodge in action and become a projectile. Take, for example, one of the little wheel weights that balance your steering; when spinning at 7,000 RPMs in mud, said otherwise innocent auto part can essentially become a bullet if knocked loose.
Officials in orange shirts inspect the cars from top to bottom, making sure the vehicles are safe to smash. Among other things, that means they aren’t artificially reinforced (added steel beams can turn a car into a tank) and that the hood has been wired shut. All participating hoopties also need a hole cut in the hood, so that the firefighters on hand can extinguish engine flames when necessary, therefore allowing cars to quickly resume wrecking.
As my chariot is drilled and soldered, I chat with a few fellow participants in the powder puff heat. First there’s Shari, a police dispatcher and 911 operator from Avon; her husband drives in the derby every year, but like me, she’s a first-timer. Another newbie, a hair stylist from Beverly named Pam, says racing in the derby is a check off of her bucket list, and that she was partially coerced by Eileen Mann, with whom she exercises at the gym.
Having sized up a few of my adversaries, I finally strap into my car, the Saturn rattling and humming and ready for battle. As if I have a plan or any kind of strategy, I position myself in the center of the track, with two opposing lines of cars queuing up on both sides of me. From there, we do the “Woodbooger Handshake,” in which all of the cars slowly creep backwards until bumpers touch, and we are given the green light to slam on the gas.
Though few would categorize me as much of a macho man, I suspect that I—as the only man on the track— possess some kind of genetic upper hand, and can perhaps be more aggressive, somehow. Surely, I say to myself as the Saturn rips across the dirt, I will be the man among the last women standing.
Nope. After getting in a few good hits, one crushing direct hit in my blind spot jolted my entire body, spun my helmet 90 degrees around like Daffy Duck getting his bill twisted, and essentially did me in. To no one’s big surprise, my Saturn simply died. As Bucknam told me in our first encounter: “It’s the ones you don’t see coming that rock you the hardest.”
My entire run lasted roughly six minutes, and I spent the remainder of the race sitting in the mud like a crippled toad as others flew past me, some narrowly missing me and my wheels. My athletic shortcomings were on full display, high school all over again, but the car was actually fine. After pulling me out of the driver’s side, the Woodbooger people nursed her back to life in five minutes, and even reworked the whip for another reporter, from the Brockton Enterprise, to try his hand in a qualifier the next night. The fucking guy actually won.
Aside from some sore joints and a week-long neck ache, I survived—even if my ego took some lumps. In any case, I wanted to meet the eventual winner, my superior in the art of vehicular pugilism, and so I reached out to 28-year old electrician Dave Musto of the Raynham-based TKO Racing. Turns out it’s an egalitarian death match after all: Musto has entered the Brockton derby before, but this was his first time ever qualifying for the main event. Whipping a 1997 Grand Marquis that he spent only three months getting demo-ready, he took first place and used the prize money to throw his family a barbecue and pay off his girlfriend’s car.
“She’s the one that [allowed] me do it,” says Musto, who has two children. “With all the time and effort that goes into [prepping] cars, it’s almost impossible to do it with kids and a full-time job. She gave me as much time as I needed for it. I owed her. As soon as I had the money, I paid off her Jeep.”
This weekend, Musto will defend his title on Labor Day at the Hopkinton State Fair. Win or lose, he’ll be back for more in 2016. “As I’ve been saying for years,” claims Musto, “it’s the most fun you can have with your pants on.”
In a car, anyway.