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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At first, the discussion revolves around K.O.'s green New Yorker. He's admiring the Budweiser stickers plastered on the sides, as if Anheuser-Busch were sponsoring him. "Those stickers are sweet," he says. "She's gonna be the most beautifulest car in the derby."

He pauses, then corrects himself: "Sorry -- the beautifulest car."

K.O. turns from the New Yorker and asks me if I'll ever run a derby. No, I say. I've been in car crashes before, and I don't like them. But K.O. says it's different. In a derby you see the guy coming, "so you can tense up before impact."

Wouldn't that make it worse, I wonder? Isn't it the drunk who survives a DUI crash because his body is limp?

K.O., who at this point has had a few, does not follow my line of questioning. He says: "Yeah, I don't drink too much now before the derby. I got real drunk for one in Sacramento. They were hitting so hard I told my buddy, 'Shit, pour me some courage. '"

Courage that night came in the form of vodka mixed with the energy drink Rockstar. K.O.'s buddy Art Vitorino, a mechanic who helps K.O. work on his cars, says this drink is a favorite because even as you get drunk off the vodka, the Rockstar keeps you alert. "But Kenny drank a lot that night," he says. "I don't recommend that."

Typically, though, derby drivers aren't much for mixed drinks. "I don't smoke or chew," Brian says. "I just drink beer." And not just any beer. "Bud Light is the best," Brandon offers. "Coors Light tastes pretty good, but it doesn't get you drunk. I could drink a case of Coors Light and not be drunk. ... Well, actually, I could drink a case of Bud Light and not be drunk either. Yeah, a whole lot of beer goes into these cars."

A few beers later, the discussion turns to how the brothers first got into the derby (their dad worked in a junkyard and started putting cars together in the '60s). But what is the point? I ask. What is the meaning of a sport in which contestants create something only to destroy it?

For Brandon, the answer is simple: "This is why," he says, gesturing to the garage, the beers, the men in dirty, oil-covered clothes. "It's a fun thing to do while you're drinkin' beer and bullshittin' with your friends."

For a long time, Brandon says, the Holts competed but were not very good. Then, about four years ago, they got serious. They started experimenting with different modifications. They began running different makes to determine which cars were the strongest. In short, they decided to start winning. And they did win. They won nearly every derby they ran.

But their pursuit of victory consumed them, and as a result they nearly lost some of their oldest friends. Like Chris Kemps, a prison guard at a Chowchilla women's facility, who got into the derby the same time the Holts did. They worked on their cars together and ran as a team, an alliance that is against the rules but common nonetheless. They would attack strangers first and come to the aid of their own. The prize money -- usually no more than a thousand dollars for the top spot -- was divided evenly among each driver.

But the crew got greedy. The shares were decreasing with each new member. So the Holts reduced the size of their crew. They told Kemps that he could still work on his cars with them, but that they'd run the derbies alone.

Pretty soon, Kemps stopped coming around the pig farm. The Holts asked him back. By then, he'd found somewhere else to work on his cars, but he did agree to rejoin their team. The Holts learned a lesson from this. "We're serious, but we don't want to lose friends over it," Brandon says. "Not after what happened with Chris."

Brandon met Missy two months ago in Santa Nella, where she works as a waitress at Denny's. He was on his way home from a derby in Watsonville when he and his brothers stopped in for a meal. "His brother, Doug, was like, 'You single?'" Missy recalls. "'You are? Well, then, what about my brother?'"

Brandon, who was drunk at the time, paid little attention -- he was watching a tape of the derby on a hand-held video recorder. But Missy, a plump and petite blonde, liked what she saw, so she wrote her number down on the receipt. A few weeks later, Brandon called.

Missy has been going to derbies since she was a kid. But as the sun rises over the pig farm on derby day, she admits that today's event is extra special: It's the first time she'll get to paint Brandon's car.

The painting of a derby car, Brandon explains, is a ritual governed by certain rules that must be obeyed. For instance, the driver sprays on the base color (on Brandon's cars, always yellow) and the driver's lady hand-paints the details (here, orange with blue outlines).

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