From Twisted Metal’s hedonistic battles to Grand Theft Auto’s gleefully destructive police chases, car-on-car combat has been a video game staple for years. After all, driving is fun and breaking things is fun. Putting those two things together is a sure-fire hit, creating an experience that’s both transgressive and thrilling. Watching a car burst into flames amid screeching of digital metal isn’t just exciting—it’s satisfying, too.
Tony Hartin understands. Like many of us, Hartin’s been in plenty of match-ups in which he wielded his vehicle like a weapon, taking out his competitors with his eyes on the target and a foot on the gas. Yet unlike most gamers, Hartin’s never sideswiped an opponent in Rocket League or taken out a pursuing cop car in Need for Speed. Hartin is a fifteen-year veteran of the Gooderham Horseshoe Days’ Demolition Derby, an event that brings car-versus-car combat off the screen and into the real world (usually the local county fair).
Demolition derbies offer the same thrill as car combat games like Batman: Arkham Knight and Mad Max, but everything’s kicked up a few notches. After all, those are games. Demolition derbies are for real.
Still, while one’s decidedly more risky than the other, demolition derbies and games fulfill the same general fantasy. “It’s a chance to ram your two-ton vehicle into someone else’s two-ton vehicle,” Hartin tells me. “It’s quite an adrenaline rush.”
It’s not as frightening as you’d expect, either, at least not according to Tony. “As soon as it gets going, your adrenaline is just going so much, and you’re just so excited and trying to keep your wits about you, you honestly don’t have time to be scared,” he says. Video games don’t lie: demolition derbies are just as fun as you’d imagine.
It helps that Hartin’s always been comfortable behind the wheel; as he puts it, “I have gasoline in my veins.” Hartin grew up on a farm and took auto shop in school, giving him some mechanical know-how, and he spent some time working at a rock quarry fixing machines. In addition to demolition derbies, he’s also participated in go-kart, Formula 4 and drag races.
The structure of a demolition derby should be familiar to anyone who has ever participated in a multiplayer “death match” game. Before a derby starts, a dozen competitors line their vehicles up on opposite sides of a walled-in bullpen. The derby official drops the flag, and the competitors take off. There’s only one goal: run into your opponents’ vehicles as hard as possible, causing as much damage as you can, without ruining your own car. At the end, the last car that’s still moving wins.
“A lot of people have not been in car accidents, which is a good thing, but they probably wonder, ‘Gee, what’s that like?’” Hartin says. Like video games, derbies offer competitors the chance to find out. A well-run derby is largely safe, too. The ground in the bullpen (either dirt or gravel) is watered down, sparing the audience from dust clouds and reducing the cars’ top speeds. Thanks to the terrain and the size of the bullpen (most are only a couple hundred of feet long), most cars top out somewhere around 20 miles per hour. Driver’s-side doors are painted white, and direct hits to that area of the car result in immediate disqualifications.
Putting together a derby car is a lot like levelling up a character in a video game. Derby drivers generally start with an old clunker (Hartin estimates that he never spent more than $300 for a derby vehicle), and power up the vehicle with special upgrades. Installing a special marine-type gas tank (replacing the car’s standard gas tank) where the back seat once was is required for safety, and Hartin says that a well-placed radiator should prevent overheating, a common cause of eliminations.
After derbies Hartin would tow his cars back to his family farm. When it came time to build a new car, he’d take the good parts out of the older model and use them again. It’s kind of like using loot gathered from past adventures to help progress in new ones. It saves money, too—because he could reuse parts, Hartin rarely put more than $200 into fixing up a car.
When asked what makes a good demolition derby driver, Hartin sounds like he’s describing a professional gamer. In derbies, thoughtlessly ramming everyone you see will cost you the match. Instead, Hartin says, you need to be patient. “You’ve got to pick your spots,” he says. “You don’t want to hit so much that you damage your own car, or, if you hit them the wrong way…your bumpers might lock, and then you’re stuck with a guy.” Stay alert, too, he said. There are ten other cars all out to get you, and focusing on one opponent is a good way to get into trouble.
Similarly, when Hartin talks about strategy, it sounds awfully familiar. Opponents’ exposed areas may not flash for the players’ benefit, but knowing how to exploit competitors’ weak spots is crucial. For example, if your bumper is the right height, go for the opponent’s wheels; a good hit to the front tires will decimate a car’s suspension, while a solid collision with the rear will destroy the axel. Later in the match, when there are only a few cars left, positioning is key. Avoid the corners, where you might get boxed in, and try to hit with your rear, away from your car’s most important mechanical bits.
Hartin doesn’t participate in derbies any more. While he says, “I probably grew out of [derby driving] by the time I was in my late ‘30s,” Tony’s retirement has more to do with logistics than anything else. When Hartin traded the farm for the suburbs, it became a lot harder to store and maintain multiple cars. He still maintains Hartin.com, the best resource for demolition derby tips on the Internet, but his competitive days are behind him.
Still, if Tony needs a fix, there’s an easy solution out there. The highs aren’t as high and the hits aren’t as hard, but a digital garage doesn’t take up any more space than an HD television and a console, and fixing a car is as easy as hitting the reset button. As long as people feel the need to bash two giant pieces of metal together for sport, video games will be there. Count on it.
Christopher Gates is a writer and video game critic from Los Angeles, CA. In his spare time, he watches too much baseball, reads too many comics, and drinks too much beer. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisWGates.