On a hot day in the Central Valley, Ken Olson exits Highway 99 in Lodi, passing a church with a plastic announcements board that declares JESUS IS THE ORIGINAL SUPERMAN. He cruises an industrial part of town, his eyes trawling the empty spaces, then pulls into a lot littered with ancient farm equipment and out-of-service semis. In a far corner against a barbed-wire fence is an old rusting car.
"There she is!" shouts Olson, a heavyset, dark-haired man whom everyone calls K.O. "That's the one we want right there, baby!"
K.O. leaps from his pickup and hurries over to the car, a 1966 Chrysler Imperial with wings. Two of the tires are flat. The frame is massive, the interior sprawling. "Christ," he says, opening the back door to a gang of spiderwebs. "Look at all that leg room."
K.O. walks around the Imperial, taking notes: tags date back to the '80s ... dented right back fender ... busted taillight ... all good signs. He lies down on the concrete, wiggling his 260-pound body beneath the frame. It's thick, he declares, solid, like they don't make them anymore.
In a shop near the back of the lot, K.O. seeks out the owner, a guy in his seventies. He's wearing blue overalls with a nametag reading "Jess" sewn onto his breast pocket. When K.O. enters, Jess is welding the side of an old pickup. Turning to face K.O., he pulls up the visor of his welding mask, revealing a hard and expressionless face. Wrinkles run north to south at the corners of his mouth like cracks in stone. He extinguishes the flame. "What can I do you for?"
"I'm interested in that Imperial out there," K.O. says.
"That so? What's it worth to you?"
Jess pulls a tobacco pipe from his vest pocket, closes one eye, and peers into the bowl with the other. Then, slowly and deliberately, he shakes his head. "No, sir," he says. "The engine's worth more than that." Jess is going to retire soon. Maybe then he'll have time to fix her up like she deserves. "You know how much a restored Imperial goes for? $30,000, that's how much," he says. "I bought her new. She's from a time when they really built cars ... not like today."
Jess lights the pipe. An awkward silence settles over the two men as K.O. wonders if he should leave. Then Jess asks the one question K.O. most dreads: "What did you want her for?"
Pulling off his San Francisco Giants baseball cap, K.O. rubs a hand through his thinning, spiky hair. He never knows how to answer this question. "Well, I was, uh ... thinking about entering her into a destruction derby."
Jess' stare turns cold. K.O. quickly amends his statement by adding a lie: "Either that, or I might've fixed her up."
Back out in the lot, K.O. takes one last look at the rundown Imperial. "It's like fishing," he says. "Some days you catch the big one, and some days you don't catch shit."
K.O. has been hooked on the destruction derby since he saw his first one at the Stanislaus County Fair in Turlock a few years back. "It's sick and it's crazy, but I'm a freak for it," he says. And he isn't alone. In 2002, ten million Americans bought tickets to derbies. In Midwestern states such as Wisconsin and Ohio -- where it's called demolition derby, and where there are more than three hundred a year -- it's a religion.
In California, the derby is not yet a religion. But it is a cult. "It's definitely on the rise out there," says Todd Dube, president of DENT, the Demolition Event National Tour. In 1990, he says there were fifty derbies a year in California; by 2000, that number had doubled.
The derby's popularity in California has been nurtured by its main venue, the county fair, which is still the most popular draw of the summer in the agricultural communities of the Central Valley. In years past, rodeos dominated the fairs. Now, however, "The derby is even more popular than the Village People," says Pennie Rorex, publicity director of the Stanislaus County Fair, referring to last year's Main Stage band. Rorex, an ebullient redhead, illustrates her point at the fairground's outdoor arena: Hours before tickets had gone on sale, dozens of spectators were already lined up, hoping to score front-row seats to the derby. "It's incredible how popular it is," she says. "Look at me; I'm somewhat of a prim and proper gal, but I never miss it. I hoot and holler!"
The drivers are even more maniacal, K.O. says. But enthusiasm does not necessarily translate into success. You need know-how and a good car. When K.O. entered his first derby three years ago, he drove a Buick Electra, a poor choice. At a driver's meeting, veteran rivals laughed outright at the car, dubbing it a One-Hit Wonder. And when the starting flag fell, Brandon Holt -- one of four brothers who constitute the Derby Dynasty of the Central Valley -- took aim. He battered the Buick with such force and ferocity that his car ended up on K.O.'s roof. "Not my hood -- my roof," K.O. says. "And when he was up there he started peeling out. He really tore up my vinyl covering."
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