Eve of Destruction 

Why create a car just to destroy it? Because it's fun to do while drinkin' beer and bullshittin' with some of your friends.

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It's five days before the final derby of the season, at the Altamont Raceway in easternmost Alameda County, on the Tracy side of the Altamont Pass. On the paved section of the driveway, the car that K.O. will run is parked among various tools and welding tanks. But there are no Holt cars, just an engine on the ground. I ask if they're going to run. They'll run, Brian says, and so will their 31-year-old brother Doug.

Brian's car is out at his dad's ranch in Oakdale. It's a black Chevy station wagon he calls the Undertaker. Brian always runs as the Undertaker.

I turn to Brandon. "What about you? Are you going to run?"

"Yeah," he says quietly. Although he has a reputation as a fierce driver and big hitter on the derby circuit, Brandon Holt, I can already tell, is shy.

"What are you running?" I ask.

Brandon points to the engine on the ground, which I learn later has been pulled from a 1985 Chrysler St. Regis. Then he motions toward the gravel road. There, chained to a backhoe, is a white Impala. Brandon has just towed it from the graveyard out back. It has no engine, not even a hood. The steering wheel is sticking out a shattered back window. Inside the cab is a mess of broken glass and three empty Bud Light bottles.

"You're going to run that in the derby?" I ask.

"Sure am."

"You can get this ready in less than a week?"

"Sure can," he says, shrugging. Then he walks into the garage, where there is a refrigerator full of beer, and opens a Bud Light.

The first step in derby preparation is to strip the car. Everything must be torn out: the seats, windshield, dash, paneling ... nothing flammable can remain. Brandon's car is already stripped, so he moves on to step two: welding in the roll bar, four thick slabs of metal inside the cockpit. This fundamental feature in all derby cars creates a virtually impenetrable pocket of safety around the driver.

Brandon climbs inside the empty shell of the Impala, ignites the torch, and starts melting the roll bar onto the car's frame. Several hours later, with the sun setting on the pig farm, he's still at it. And now Brian's three kids, home from school, enter the scene. The oldest, twelve-year-old Nathan, climbs in and out and all around the Impala, even as the sparks fly. Nathan is thin and athletic. He leaps from the hood of the car to the driveway with lithe grace. And he knows his way around a car. "He's learning how to weld now," his uncle Brandon says. "Hell, I'd say he knows more about cars than 90 percent of the drivers in California." Nathan says he could already build his own derby car from the ground up. But he'll have to wait to compete. "At least till he's fifteen," Brian says.

A cell phone rings. Nathan picks it up from off a toolbox and hands it through the driver's side window to Brandon. He checks the caller ID and smiles. "Hey, babe," he says -- it's his new girlfriend, Missy. Brandon climbs out the window and walks towards the pigpens so he can speak out of earshot.

Picking up the blowtorch, Brian now uses it to cut out chunks of the body from behind the left rear tire. As sheets of metal loosen from the shell, he calls to Nathan, telling him to "Step on it!" The boy follows instructions, helping his dad rip the pieces loose. By exposing the tires, Brian explains, he actually is protecting them, "so they don't get shredded if the trunk gets smashed down into the wheel wells." The Holts will also bang a crease into the top of the trunk with a sledgehammer and cut small notches into the underside of the frame with a blowtorch so that when the car gets hit it'll bend upwards, away from the wells.

After five straight hours of welding and torching the Impala, the Holts call it a night. The brothers open fresh bottles of Bud Light and hang their elbows over the edge of the open hood, surveying the still-engineless car. Brandon is pleased: Welding is the most time-consuming phase in derby preparation, and he's gotten most of it done today.

The day before the derby, the Holts and K.O. stand around their cars. Save a few last-minute adjustments -- such as installing a new radiator or hooking up the gas tank, a five-gallon plastic container that sits behind the driver's seat -- they are derby-ready. So they pop open fresh beers and spend hours talking in the warm evening air.

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