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CAR #1: 1979 Chevrolet Impala

This is how an AMC fan takes out his loathing of Big Three vehicles...
by wrecking them with one of their own!

I looked into the driveway of my neighbor's home, and found a new appreciation for the long-idled, very worn down 1979 Impala that he'd had sitting there for a good year or so. It had been parked when a tie-rod broke, never to return to use. I asked about it and was glad to find $50 made the car mine. It had a strong 305-V8 engine and equally strong tranny. It was mostly maroon in color, but the hood and fenders were black, and the front header panel was copper. The interior was well worn and torn, cracked and hacked. It was an excellent candidate for the derby.

I quickly mailed my entry fee and application, then let the car sit until a few days before the August 8, 2001 event. I didn't want to piss-off the locals with a hideous demo car for too long, and this created three days of rushed mayhem preparation.

Using the (incomplete) printed rules supplied by organizers, we (another co-worker [Harry] and myself) prepared the car with a vengeance. With little time to work, we followed the rules closely, ignoring anything not plainly optional stuff, like strengthening the driver's door.

All the glass and lights were removed, plastic body panels and bright trim, too. Most of these photos were taken while the rear window was still in, but it did come out later. The side glass was removed by locals kids that we allowed to smash the glass out (they liked it way too much). The rear seat's bottom was removed to allow a motorcycle's fuel tank to straddle the driveshaft tunnel, which was then covered with a chopped file cabinet to create a 'cover' for the tank (presumably to slow the spread of a fire, allowing a driver [me] a few seconds extra to escape). Chicken wire replaced the front and driver's side glass to help slow/block small rocks thrown by other car's tires, keeping them from pounding me. A battery box held the relocated battery to the front passenger-side floorboard. The exhaust was shortened to just past the rear axle (I liked the quiet, so removing all of it was not considered) to prevent the tailpipe being hit, thus rattling/damaging the rest of the system. Hood, trunklid and doors were wired shut.

This is nearly all we did. Not knowing how strictly enforced the rules would be, we refused to violate the word AND the spirit of the rules. No cheats were attempted.

The next stage was the look of the car. I handled most of this, but others pitched in, and it quickly got out of hand. I tried for a taxicab look. The rules required white doors (for safety), so a solid-colored car was impossible (out went the Starsky & Hutch idea, and the Batmobile). We grabbed several cans of cheap (87-cent) Wal-Mart spray paint, and some shoe-polish-type bottles of colored glass markers to write with. Neighborhood kids wanted their names on it, so many got added. The hood's 'Mike's Hard Lemonade' logo sprang from my discovery of this drink while at lunch with Harry recently. We both love the stuff when it's cold and the weather is hot. The tribute seemed right. The weird face on the roof was purely adlib as I was running low on yellow paint, and the weathered roof was left with a bare circle on it....the face was without a just happened.

One thing I don't like about most derby cars is that the normal preparation leaves them looking stripped. I wanted this car to look more 'streetable' than the others. I painted fake tail lights on the rear panel and used paint to enlarge and better round-out the holes in the front panel. I think the rear look was great. We also used silver/aluminum paint to replace all the bright trim we removed, adding wheelwell trim while we were at it. The silver also helped the wheels look better, especially after adding black blotches to suggest the car was wearing 5-slot mags. From a distance, the effect was good.

Most cars we saw were wearing huge, mud-terrain truck tires, as well as other money-burning changes. We chose not to spend that kind of money for several reasons. First, this was our first time out. Second, it might be our last time if we hated it. Third, I was sure I wouldn't need them anymore than I need snow tires in winter. I believe I'm a better driver than most, and where others get stuck in a well-prepared car, I get through with ill-prepared cars. I was sure traction would not be an issue for me.

Then, the day of the event is upon me, and the car's fuel cell cover is far from completed. I sweat in 100 degree heat all day to finish the car to *my* standards (it's my ass in there!). Then I find my brother can't tow the car for me. So close, yet so far. I call all over and finally find a wrecker that can transport me to the fair. I finish the fuel cover as the tow truck drives up! I grab all my gear and head out. Harry will make a stop for gasoline and meet me there.

I arrive at the pits, the car is unloaded and I'm told to go straight to inspection. That's when I learn how incomplete the printed rules are. I'm quickly given a shopping list of minor changes required before I can compete... but I've brought no tools, and the event starts in less than an hour. Luckily, other participants volunteer to get the car ready, and a few guys start swinging tools, making the changes. Another offical is explaining regulations to another rookie like myself, and points into my car and says 'See that? That's what we want to see in a fuel cell cover.' I'm flattered, but also think it's funny he can say that when NOBODY looked IN it to see if the fuel cell itself was 'right'. For all he knew, I used a plastic cup and a Krazy Straw!

Now the car is ready...except there's nearly no fuel in the tank (this was left for last for safety reasons). Harry is nowhere to be found with 15 minutes left. I notice one OVER-prepared truck and trailer toting half a dozen big fuel containers. I offer to buy any fuel he can spare- he says take it, just bring back the container, no charge. Pretty cool people, eh? With 10 minutes to go, Harry arrives WITHOUT fuel- security wouldn't let it in! The car still hasn't passed inspection, and Harry drags an official over who 'OK's' the car without really checking anything...but like I'm gonna complain?!? *I* know it's right, so let's rock!

By now, Harry's way over-excited, acting like a kid. I'm trying to remain calm and business-like...checking switches and gauges, double-checking all safety items (almost all). I'm thinking about 'the plan'- the one created to maximize the fun and minimize embarrassment. It goes like this:


  • Have Fun.
  • Hit Hard.
  • Stay Safe.
  • Have More Fun.
  • Survive long enough to learn a bit, get the feel of hitting and being hit, and decide whether I'll want to do it again.


  • get knocked out first, or with the first hit. That will suck.
  • get stuck in the loose dirt and ruts. This also will suck.
  • do something dumb that gets you knocked out or thrown out.
  • get hurt.

    My girlfriend, Connie, is also bursting with excitement, cheering and bouncing about near the spectator stands.

    The time is here, and a dozen cars enter the field for Heat #3. I cross the field, honking the horn all the way (just to be annoying and/or funny). I line up 4th in a side-by-side row of 6 cars, rearends facing an identical line of 6 more cars across the arena. The green flag drops, and we all throttle up in reverse. The plan is to hit the car opposite you HARD, all 12 cars at once. Somehow, the guy to my right gets crossed up and plows the guy I'm intended to hit. With no solid target, I veer a bit and broadside a car that's already received it's rear slam. Now it's a free-for-all. In the confusion, I somehow slip away to open terrain and spot a red Dodge Diplomat moving thru a turn. His grille beckons to me....KILL!...and I floor it, slamming him at about 30mph backwards. This is when I realize I never raised my seat's head flips backward like a PEZ dispenser and I see stars. I regroup quickly (adrenaline!) and tear off in search of another target. I find I'm lined up to hit another car head-on.....a rules infraction. But that radiator is SO tempting, but I need to protect my own. I charge at him, then turn sharply left and gun the gas. This breaks the rearend loose, and the front/right corner of my car spears the other car's grille, and steam erupts. This sudden turn of mine appears to be my attempt to AVOID a head-on crash, and the officials buy it. Just two solid hits and I've seriously wounded two cars. Not bad, I'm thinking. A few lesser hits follow... I dish it out, I take some, but the car is behaving great. Then, someone accidentally finds my car's Achilles heel. Our rubber fuel line is alongside the rocker channel on the passenger side. A solid hit to the door, the rocker bends, squeezing the line closed. Moments later, as I round a disabled car to surprise attack another car, my motor stalls, and all attempts to restart it fail. After 60 seconds of trying, the officials signal that I'm finished.

    I'm sitting in the car, mayhem all around, and I'm surprised to find....I'm laughing and loving it. I never expected to qualify my first time out, and I was fully prepared to be the first car knocked out. Instead, I survived halfway thru the heat, being the 6th car killed. I thought it was great- I'd met the bare minimum I wanted, and then some.

    The car was in great shape afterwards. The front bumper was yanked off when a backhoe towed it off the field, not during the battle. Once the car was free of the backhoe, a quick tug on the fuel line freed it, and it fired right back up. Easily, the car could have gone into another heat and continued. But the heats were full. And bringing the car home would have meant paying for another tow I wasn't willing to part with. So off went the solid motor and trans, salvageable body and custom fuel cell cover to a local junkyard.

    My neck is killing me for days now. I've got more small cuts than the car had light bulbs. My driveway is a disaster area. And Harry and I are preparing plans for at least two cars to prepare for the next time the derby is June, or sooner if we find one nearby enough!

    Rest in peace, my yellow taxi. You've started something!
    Send me your every thought!

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