September 29, 2016

Kamas Demolition Derby

Photos and story by Paige Wiren

For a town of 1,600 inhabitants, Kamas boasts a considerable number of award-winning elements. Kamas City co-hosts the High Uintas Classic, a nationally recognized cycling race. Its South Summit Aquatic and Fitness Center is a paragon of functional, architectural excellence, and the Samak Smokehouse has garnered national acclaim and won local “Best Of” recognition. So too has Hi Mountain Drug won “Best of State” for their exceptional burgers. However, beyond these points of local pride, the one event that categorically defines this Uinta Mountains gateway town is the annual Kamas Demolition Derby.

For the demolition devotee, countdown begins in mid-May when tickets go on sale and sell out within 24 hours. Tour de force tension builds around Kamas’ Fiesta Days celebration, the event itself culminating on a Saturday night drawing a rowdy crowd of thousands to the Kamas Rodeo Grounds to watch and participate in bona fide, homegrown, and unmistakably American mayhem.

Before the event, drivers and their crews make last-minute adjustments to stripped down, reinforced and seam-welded Chryslers and Fords. The rides, many of which have already survived a previous derby, sport tags like “D-Stroyer,” and “Eat Me.” To the novice eye, the cars appear just to be gutted wrecks, but these twisted masterpieces are built to perform vehicular gladiator feats. As reckless as it may seem to some, there are rules. “No hot-rodding or speeding in the pit area.” “No fighting is allowed,”and “Do not hit the driver’s door!”

The National Anthem opens the festivities. Contestants first vie to win the ironic beauty car contest, with the Skullcandy machine earning today’s prize trophy. The crowd hoots and hollers as the wrecks roll in for the initial heat, and the announcer leads the stands in a competition countdown. On “Three, two, one!” tires spin, and, from the arena perimeters, power-driven masses of metal careen towards each other with the sole intent of inflicting triumphant damage. The crowd is resoundingly enthusiastic, cheering as engines howl and back ends crumple. There’s something glorious and vicariously satisfying about watching a strategically timed collision wrench an entire wheel off another car’s axel. Both “Best Hit” and “Tough Luck” awards are announced after time is called.

In between heats, bobcats smooth the field. The emcee skillfully engages the crowd with coupon giveaways for random contests like, “Who’s been married the longest?” while a pick-up truck full of frisbee-tossing youth circles the arena. The people vote for spirited dance contestants by making noise for their favorite contender, and, after nightfall, a particularly raucous, gender-specific tug-of-war between volunteers from the north and south sets of stands underscores the night’s racous entertainment.

A near rollover highlights the second heat. Heat three, a “grudge match,” belongs to contestants still operating functional rides, but who didn’t transfer to the finals their first go ‘round. This year’s Powder Puff heat welcomes eight women drivers who administer their own style of not-so-feminine damage.

When the final heat commences, night has overtaken the arena. Finalists rumble in and the crowd energy tightens like an aperture closing in on a focal point, the anticipatory quiet then shifting to full-blown accelerated cheering as the deliberate pandemonium ensues. Cars lurch and pivot, fishtail and slam. Dirt sprays off tires seeking traction. The blunted crunch of metal on metal thrills and delights. A calculated hit flips an already vulnerable car. Stadium lights illuminate smoke hissing from partially handicapped vehicles. Another car overpowers an upturned competitor, like a dominant dog at a submissive dog’s throat.

At the end of the heat the crowd energy subsides and the night air is filled with the pleasantly noxious odors of burning oil and rubber. While the judges choose the winner the crowd streams out greeted by a night sky punctuated with fireworks finale. §