Demolition Derby: A Love Story

Demolition Derby, Hopkinton State Fair, Contoocook, N.H.
Demolition Derby, Hopkinton State Fair, Contoocook, N.H.
Hilary Sargent

Nothing about me says ‘demolition derby.’

I don’t pump my own gas. I’ve never changed a tire. I’ve never even filled up the wiper fluid in my own car. I drive a white station wagon that was made in Germany. I drink white wine. I collect seaglass. I don’t just listen to NPR, I send them money. I thought – for a brief amount of time – that NASCAR was a brand of cigarettes.

But the demolition derby at New Hampshire’s Hopkinton State Fair is the highlight of my year. It’s my new Christmas.

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The first time I went, I expected to enjoy it, in the way it’s amusing for people to step outside their comfort zone and ‘enjoy’ something they have no intention of doing again.

That’s not what happened. I loved it. The national anthem. The part where a car jumped the fence. The music that played during intermissions, while forklifts and bulldozers cleared demolished cars from the arena.

Demolition derby, you complete me.

I was hooked.

I have a vague memory of my very first derby. I was probably 10 or so. It was in Maine, where I spent most summers growing up. I don’t remember much, beyond a glimmer of excitement and a ton of smoke.

Ad from The Lewiston Journal, June 13, 1987

My dad remembers more. “It was the Wiscasset Speedway,” he told me.

Why did he take me? My dad: “I took you cause I love it. It was awesome. And now that you mention it I think I will go to the racetrack as soon as I can.”

So last weekend, I brought my son to the Hopkinton State Fair’s derby. As a 3-year-old, he’s pretty interested in cars, and also destruction. What combines the two better than a demolition derby?

But would it scar him? Would it lead to a life of violence? Would there be some kind of terrible incident that he would witness? Either way, it would be something he could discuss with his friends the first week back at his Montessori school.

Maybe, just maybe, it would become our joint obsession.

To test the waters, I showed him a few YouTube videos over breakfast one day. There were no tears. The plan could move forward.

The derby begins at 6:30 p.m.. By 4 pm, lines had formed at both grandstand entrances. We went to the back entrance, where I knew the line would be shorter. At 5:30 p.m., the doors opened. The fans poured in. Babies, toddlers, families, college kids. Veteran parents came equipped with enormous headphones to protect their tiny children from the sounds of vehicles ramming into each other. I did not. Was I an irresponsible parent?

Sure, this wasn’t your white-wine drinking, Volkswagen driving kind of crowd. But the mood was positive. They loved New Hampshire. They loved the derby. Oh, and America. They loved that, too. My son sat on my lap, drinking lemonade from a giant cup. Everything was going well.

Multiple announcements reminded spectators that cigarette smoking was allowed, but not from the actual seats. (The drivers, however, were allowed to smoke cigarettes from their vehicles. And they did.)

And then came the moment of truth. Would this child I had brought into the world love this spectacle as much as I love it?

Love doesn’t even begin to describe it. He was in. All in. Whatever it was that made me derby-obsessed had been passed down. From my dad to me. And from me to my son.

Hear that kid screaming “Go, Go, Go!”? That’s him. I’ve never been prouder.

Dan Garvis, owner of Skyfire Productions, which runs the Hopkinton demolition derby, explained that my newfound obsession isn’t as odd as you might think.

“Fans of demolition derbies are, for the most part, diehards,” Garvis explained. “A woman fell in the stands and broke her ankle. She refused to let EMS take her out until the event was over. She crawled back to her seat.”

Back in 1967, Garvis attended his first derby in Greenfield, Mass. “I was 15. I prepped a car for the first female driver ever to participate in a demolition derby. It was a Chrysler. And she might have won if there hadn’t been a fuel leak.”

My son’s favorite derby car.

Last weekend, after this year’s derby winner was crowned, we made our way back toward the field that, one weekend a year, doubles as a parking lot for fair attendees. We walked by stand after stand selling every variety of light-up toy. I bought him a machine gun that lights up like a rainbow when you pull the trigger.

I needed to make sure he really loved it.

“Do you want to live here forever,” I asked.

He nodded. “Can we?”

I told him it was certainly worth considering.

And we left, one of his sticky hands in one of mine. With his other hand, he held his glowing machine gun, and shot again and again, toward the star-filled sky.