Back to the Top of the Heap?
Demolition derby cars line up before the beginning of the demolition derby at the Shenandoah County Fair on Aug. 28 in Woodstock, Va. The Washington Post -- Matt McClain
Bill Orndorff, left, and Craig Robinson work on the car of Bill's son Zach Orndorff after his first heat of the demolition derby at the Shenandoah County Fair in Woodstock, Va. The Washington Post Matt McClain
Cars collide during the demolition derby at the Shenandoah County Fair on Aug. 27 in Woodstock, Va. Derby fans fear the end of an era because there are fewer old cars with heavy steel frames, which are essential to a derby cars ability to administer and withstand punishment. Illustrates DEMOLITIONDERBY (category l), by David Montgomery, (c) 2012, The Washington Post. Moved Thursday Nov. 29, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by Matt McClain for The Washington Post)
Mandy Waybright, 27, sits on her demolition derby car prior to the first heat of the demolition derby at the Shenandoah County Fair on Aug. 27 in Woodstock, Va. Derby fans fear the end of an era because there are fewer old cars with heavy steel frames, which are essential to a derby cars ability to administer and withstand punishment. Illustrates DEMOLITIONDERBY (category l), by David Montgomery, (c) 2012, The Washington Post. Moved Thursday Nov. 29, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by Matt McClain for The Washington Post)
Bill Orndorff competes in the demolition derby at the Shenandoah County Fair on Aug. 28 in Woodstock, Va. He drove his Pontiac rehabbed with parts of his son Zach Orndoffs Mercury. Derby fans fear the end of an era because there are fewer old cars with heavy steel frames, which are essential to a derby cars ability to administer and withstand punishment. Illustrates DEMOLITIONDERBY (category l), by David Montgomery, (c) 2012, The Washington Post. Moved Thursday Nov. 29, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by Matt McClain for The Washington Post)
The paint is still wet on the white car that pulls into the muddy corral. Blue flames flicker from exhaust pipes sticking up through the hood. This car was crafted from junk — it’s a 1973 Pontiac Catalina body bolted to a 1975 Caprice frame — and junk it will be again. Until then, red letters stenciled on both flanks announce: “Wild Bill.”
Deliberately wrung of all suspension softness, the car skips like a brick over the rough ground beneath the grandstand, which is packed with 1,500 hollering fans. The annual demolition derby at the Shenandoah County Fair in Woodstock, Va., is sold out, as it almost always is. A straight, spotlighted section of harness-racing track will be tonight’s field of combat. Last car crawling wins.
Once upon a time, William “Wild Bill” Orndorff was arguably the derby king up and down the valley and on both sides of these mountains 100 miles west of Washington. He took home 66 trophies — win, place or show. “Is Wild Bill running tonight?” folks would say. “Go, Wild Bill!”
Now he’s 45, with a career remodeling houses, a 23-year marriage and two teenage sons to set an example for.
“It’s been a long time since I won,” he mutters to veteran driver Josh Wilkins on the way into the ring. “Four years.”
Wilkins tries to buck him up, saying, “Go ask anybody who they want to beat, and they say you.”
Orndorff has found himself wondering why he continues. In a crash three years ago, he shattered a kneecap. It can take hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to build a derby car, and, for all that, a derby car’s useful life is about 20 minutes.
Top prize: $500.
Some payoffs are not monetary, though. Late at night in his garage, scrambling to redeem another rusty reject, Orndorff looks at the snapshots on the walls — the crumpled chariots of yesteryear — and is reminded how the derby and its values are woven into his family and community. It’s a world where he has a reputation to uphold.
It’s also a world where fates are intertwined. The demolition derby is running out of cars. When Orndorff asks himself how many derbies he has left, it’s a version of a broader question: How many derbies does anybody have left?
Now, as the Ferris wheel twinkles, half a dozen competing cars join Orndorff’s Pontiac for this preliminary heat, including a gray 1989 Crown Victoria station wagon; a black 1986 Lincoln Town Car advertising Hillbilly Towing; and an old orange Chrysler and an olive green Ford, driven, respectively, by a husband and wife who, according to the announcer, are about to experience “great couple’s therapy.”
Orndorff feels his heart start to pound. He listens to his throaty Chevy motor echo inside the passenger cabin, from which everything soft has been removed. The sound is like being inside a torpedo outfitted with an aircraft engine.
After a quick countdown, the cars sprint and start turning into one another. The thunk of one collision after another and the screaming of the maxed-out motors sound like a symphony for wrecking balls and chain saws, as the cars devolve from vehicles to mobile wads of metal foil. Orndorff careens in reverse and hammers the green Ford. Then the wagon and the Dodge slam into him. Orndorff’s head whiplashes back; his hands are torn from the steering wheel.
Something’s wrong. He floors the gas pedal, the motor revs furiously — but the car barely responds. His rear axle is broken: Wild Bill’s losing streak continues.
When the heat is over, Orndorff takes off his helmet. He can’t move the car because his right rear wheel is about to slide off, so he has to sit in front of the restless crowd. He looks straight ahead, trying to ignore his predicament.
“Get him out of the ring,” jeers a voice from the stands.
Finally, a tow truck lifts the back of his car, just long enough for someone to push the right rear wheel back into place.
Then, Orndorff eases the Pontiac out of sight.
The last “full-frame” car — one with a heavy steel chassis bolted beneath the body — was a Ford Crown Victoria that rolled off an assembly line in St. Thomas, Ontario, in September 2011. The decades-long change to lighter, fuel-efficient “unibody” cars was now complete.
Those old steel frames are essential to a derby car’s ability to administer and absorb extreme punishment. The newer styles are too light.
This new reality has upended derby economics. From its origins in auto-thrill shows of the 1940s and 1950s, the derby has always depended on a vast, self-replenishing inventory of old, unwanted cars.
Derbies became staples of county fairs and fire hall fundraisers for decades. About 5,000 are still held each year, says Tory Schutte, who promotes some of the largest crash fests through his company Derby Icons in Genoa City, Wis.
Not so long ago, a rusting hulk in a farmer’s field would sell for $150. Now, those heaps are a vanishing resource; the front bumper alone is worth $150, and the whole car costs $500 or $1,000.
Other forces are also at work. Recent spikes in world scrap prices have tempted jalopy owners to sell straight to the junkyard, rather than support a quixotic detour into the derby ring. And the federal “cash for clunkers” program in 2009 sent tens of thousands of future derby cars to the crusher by paying people to trade in old gas guzzlers and buy new, fuel-efficient models. As a result, while derbies pack the grandstands, and the number of derbies is steady, the “car count” — the number of vehicles competing — “is off 85 and 90 percent nationwide,” Schutte says.
In response, derby promoters are creating divisions for smaller, lighter cars. But to watch Honda Civics pingpong around the ring is to miss the demolition derby at its most mythic. It’s like taking the tackle out of football.
The derby has long held a close and ironic relationship with the idea of preservation: The entertainment is founded on restoring junk in order to destroy it. Now the demolition endeavor itself, and the quirky culture it supports, are endangered.
“There’s a lot of generations that grew up spending time with Dad, working on their car — not playing video games — getting greasy, learning mechanical skills,” Schutte says. “It’s kind of a shame. It’s part of Americana that’s slowly going away.”
The big, blunt man known even to his three adult sons as “Sarge, the Man in Charge” parks his van on a grassy hill overlooking the county fairgrounds in Harrisonburg, Va. He has driven with his boys from Zanesville, Ohio, to put on a derby.
“I don’t need to go out and wreck a car to have fun,” booms Mike “Sarge” Rutter. “Thank God some people do.”
Some of the liveliest derby action anywhere can be found in rural communities along the spine of Interstate 81 in Virginia. Generations of farmers and tinkerers in towns such as Woodstock, Harrisonburg, Luray and Winchester have pushed the sport to astonishing heights of competition and innovation.
“Attendance is as strong now as it’s ever been,” says Rutter, dressed in the white and red uniform of Nation-Wide Demolition Derby, which has been crashing cars since 1966. “The biggest thing in recent years is being able to put a show on with a low car count,” he says.
By late afternoon, the drivers arrive, hauling their pampered cars on flat-bed trailers. Rutter spots Wild Bill Orndorff, who has come to check out the competition. The Woodstock derby is in 10 days. Rutter knows that this year, Orndorff’s son Zach will be in the same derby as his father.
It’s time for the drivers meeting. Rutter lumbers into the center of a crowd of three dozen men and a few women aged about 18 to 55. He delivers the same stern speech that he gives before every derby. There is to be no “sandbagging” (wimpy hits to protect your car) and no smashing of drivers’ doors.
“It ain’t about the prize money,” he concludes. “It ain’t about the trophies. “Let’s go have some damn fun, and let’s wreck some damn cars.”
Never before have there been two Orndorffs in the Woodstock derby, a father and son each with something different to prove.
Zach Orndorff, 18, feels the weight of carrying the Orndorff name into the derby ring. He recently graduated from the same high schools as his father. Also like his father, he studied carpentry and became a volunteer firefighter. Now he is working for Total Living Construction in Springfield, Va., where his father is production manager.
“I’m nervous,” Zach says one day in the garage of the spacious home his father built a few years ago. “It’s the first time in my home town. Everybody you know is watching you. You don’t want to mess up.”
In each bay, a derby car is elevated on jacks — Zach’s black 1994 Mercury Grand Marquis on the left, Orndorff’s Pontiac on the right. Zach follows his father’s instructions on how to install a radiator, while Josh Orndorff, 14, helps his father fashion old sprinkler pipes into a roll cage.
Orndorff wants his sons to understand that having a job, a family, a house and a reliable non-derby car are priorities ahead of derbying. He’d be happy if they achieved all those things and never crashed in the ring. Yet, he believes, derbying is embedded with values — ingenuity, discipline, budgeting, problem-solving, self-reliance, a competitive spirit — that apply beyond the derby track.
“The drive of the derby would make him succeed in life,” Orndorff says of Zach.
The photos on the walls of the garage, and upstairs in the game room where Orndorff’s trophies are displayed, show Zach and Josh as toddlers, being held in their father’s arms beside crumpled derby cars, or sitting on hoods with trophies as big as they are.
Josh is in the ninth grade now, and, unlike his father and brother, has his sights on college. He is the family archivist and artist; he does the principal painting of his father’s derby cars and keeps track of his father’s trophies. He has a few years to wait before he can drive.
“I’m counting down the days,” he says.
During the weeks it took to get the cars ready, father and sons worked side by side, along with a devoted pit crew that included Craig Robinson, one of Orndorff’s best friends from high school; Robinson’s son Jeremy, 13; and Herbie Polhemus, another old friend. More than once, Orndorff was frustrated that Zach’s social life kept him away from the garage. The father wrestled with where to draw the line between doing too much of the work and letting Zach do it himself.
“Zach,” he barked impatiently one day. “You’re not going to stand there; you’re going to go over and cut this bumper for me.”
Later, with the scattered insouciance of an 18-year-old, Zach neglected to apply an adhesive called Loctite to the tire bolts.
“Son,” intoned the derby champ. “You’ve got to do it right.”
Orndorff’s wife, Susan, rolls her eyes at the obsession of the three men of the family. She pretends to be exasperated, but she has saved all Josh’s childhood crayon depictions of Wild Bill’s epic derby showdowns.
“They lived it and breathed it as children,” she says of her sons. “It’s not my favorite thing that I want them to do. I guess they’re born into it.”
The morning of the derby, Zach says, “Everybody has been asking me, ‘Who’s the guy you’re going to take out first?’ I always say, ‘My Dad.’ You hear that, Dad?”
“You trash-talking me now?” says Orndorff, looking up, smiling, from his final, frantic work on the Pontiac.
Father and son don’t have a plan for how they will attack each other should they survive their separate heats and face off in the feature, or finale, but they’re enjoying the good-natured competition.
Orndorff lacked the same close relationship with his father, a carpenter who lived and worked away from the family for a time. The family didn’t have much money. One Christmas, Orndorff unwrapped a hammer and a bag of nails. He made a chair to take to fourth-grade show-and-tell, and later built a three-story playhouse. As a student in the high school carpentry program, he stood out for his almost total devotion to both wood and iron.
Weekend antics while four-wheeling and racing souped-up roadsters earned him the nickname Wild Bill. One summer evening in 1986, at 19, he drove an old Buick Wildcat across a farm field, then sped onto an asphalt two-lane road. He spun out of control around a curve and into a patch of poison ivy, laughing the whole time. A state trooper measured the skid mark at 330 feet and gave Orndorff a sheaf of tickets. A few weeks later, Orndorff took the Buick into his first demolition derby, at Woodstock. He painted “Wild Bill” on the car, and “Skid tested at 330 feet.”
One of his most cherished photographs was taken minutes before that Buick was crushed in the derby and he finished out of the money. Orndorff stands with his left arm draped over the car roof and his right arm wrapped around a blonde named Susan Heishman. He has on a white T-shirt, and his black hair is cut high on top and tight on the sides. The stripes of her sleeveless blouse match the blue of the Buick. The teenagers look young and cool and defiant.
The next year, they each drove cars in the Woodstock derby, and two years after that, they were married. Wild Bill settled down.
He was an indifferent derby competitor, at first. Over the years, he began to notice that certain drivers had stronger cars, and they won. His competitive instinct and craftsman’s pride spurred him to find his own path to victory.
“He’s a real innovator,” says Mark Wolfe, another top regional derby driver. “If it wasn’t for the Internet” — where new ideas become common knowledge — “I don’t think anybody would have caught up with him.”
Once, Orndorff put the radiator on the roof of a derby car, which looked funny but protected it. He was one of the first to circulate the transmission fluid from under the hood to a cooling fan on the passenger seat. He was an early adopter of pickup truck suspension to help keep derby cars rigid.
His central insight was understanding how to prepare a car to bend and crumple in ways that wouldn’t disable its vital organs. This required an intuitive grasp of geometry, physics, metallurgy and engineering, which he crystalized in a single phrase of derby Zen: “You know it’s going to mash, so you want it to mash where you want it to mash.”
Orndorff won the Woodstock derby four years in a row, 2000 to 2003, and again in 2006. He finished at the top of other derbies. The Woodstock derby expanded to two nights because so many cars were entering, and in 2008, Orndorff won both nights — a feat never equaled.
“One year he went in there, and he had the whole show dominated,” Susan says. “I’ll remember it as long as I live. He was tearing up everything, everything. And then he went in there, and he started doing doughnuts in the middle of the arena. That whole place went off.”
Then his winning streak ran out of gas, and the legend began to fade.
Even so, at the 7-Eleven, kids recognize him as the ace derby driver. In church, members congratulate him on his latest exploits. At the auto-parts store, the managers greet him by asking what fantastically ingenious auto-mechanical improvisation he is perfecting this time.
“If I love it, if it’s what I do and I’m pretty good at it, then of course I don’t want to be left by the wayside,” Orndorff says. “I don’t want it to be felt that I can’t keep up with the rest of them.”
On derby day, the heat begins, and Zach races his black Mercury across the corral. An orange 1958 Ford Edsel wagon slams into Zach, then Zach smacks a purple 1989 Crown Victoria. Zach’s car goes up on two wheels on the Vic’s bumper. Zach accidentally crashes head-on into a Jersey barrier.
Orndorff watches from the sideline, gesturing and shouting advice. He can see Zach is missing strategic opportunities. But when the checkered flag flaps, Zach is one of three survivors who qualify for the feature of the night.
In the next heat, Orndorff breaks his axle, so he won’t be facing Zach, after all. Before the feature, he wanders over to the booth where Sarge has a stack of cash and trophies for the winners.
“I ain’t won in four years, so I’m doing something wrong,” he says to Sarge. “Either that, or they’re all coming after me. I don’t know what it is.”
“When you get a little reputation, they do kind of tend to,” says Sarge.
Zach’s car goes into the feature suffering crippled steering in addition to the sticky throttle. He drives tentatively, defensively, like a fullback favoring a knee. The Edsel slams into Zach’s car, knocking it sideways.
“That might have done it right there,” his father says on the sideline. And he’s right. Zach pulls down his competitor’s pennant, indicating he is out.
First prize goes to Johnny Patton in his mighty 1986 Lincoln Town Car, the “Veto Bill” car is second, and the Edsel is third.
“I tried the best I had,” Zach says.”At least I was in the feature.”
His father will give him driving tips later, but for now, Orndorff says of his son: “He did good. He made the feature in every derby he’s been in.”
The Orndorffs load their battered cars onto flat-bed trailers for the short ride home. Gloom is uncalled for just yet. The Woodstock derby grants a second chance. The first night is for Shenandoah County residents only; the next is for all comers.
Neither car is in any shape to enter the next evening’s derby. But Orndorff has a thought: Maybe his Pontiac can be salvaged, using parts from Zach’s Mercury. It would be a merger of father’s and son’s vehicles into one mean machine. It might be their only hope.
The grandstand fills as the Ferris wheel spins pink and yellow in the darkening sky. The drivers pace the pits like a wedding party before the ceremony. The car count saps some of the joy: just 28, compared with 61 on the second night at Woodstock not so long ago.
In the preliminary heat, Orndorff is drawn into an extended battle with another derby legend, David Cline, 51, his friend and nemesis. At Harrisonburg in 2009, the rivals raced toward each other from either end of the arena and collided head-on at full speed. In a sport where protecting the front end is critical, it was a spectacularly foolish move that, to this day, neither man can explain. Orndorff’s left kneecap shattered against a piece of metal under the dash, and Cline won.
Such injuries are relatively rare, because the cars are bulked up with roll cages and other safety measures. A few years ago, a driver at Woodstock suffered burns when his plastic gas tank leaked. Now, tanks must be metal. This year, a driver was treated for lacerations and back pain, according to a spokesman for the local hospital. Nation-Wide reported another driver cut his arm and needed stitches. Nation-Wide’s insurance policy covers driver injuries.
Cline revs his burly green 1972 Buick Electra mounted on a 1976 Cadillac Coupe de Ville frame and sideswipes Orndorff’s Pontiac. Orndorff forces Cline to one end of the corral, then they separate and bash other competitors.
Cline’s Buick smashes again into the back of the Pontiac just as the checkered flag signals the end of the heat. Four drivers, including Orndorff and Cline, will advance to the feature.
While the newly created divisions of smaller-model cars crash in the ring, there is time to make superficial repairs. The blows to the Pontiac’s rear have pushed the trunk in farther, with the helpful effect of making the bumper stick out even more lethally.
“I’m worried about the frame,” Orndorff frets.
Waiting for the feature countdown, he fiddles with his safety glasses. He grips the steering wheel and the automatic shifter, which he has designed with two options, forward and backward. Then it’s on.
He throws the Pontiac into reverse and pulls to one end of the rectangular corral. It’s a tight space — about 50 feet wide and 180 feet long. The churning tires kick up clumps of mud that pelt the first rows of the grandstand, which the fans consider part of the fun.
Cline deftly slips in front of Orndorff and uses his rear to push Orndorff the length of the track. Orndorff does not want to be behind Cline, but he does want to stay close, so Cline can’t build speed to make a devastating hit. Orndorff slides beside Cline and the two run parallel, door-to-door, banging into others.
Orndorff seizes an opening to clobber the front side of a 1976 Cadillac Sedan de Ville driven by Wayne Good. Cline exploits the moment to plow into Orndorff’s passenger door. The impact snaps Orndorff’s body to the right.
Behind the wheel, Orndorff is constantly in motion, steering with his left hand, shifting with the right, craning to see in all directions at once, absorbing the shock of hits. He doesn’t use a shoulder belt, let alone a five-point safety harness, as some drivers do. He says it would restrict his ability to see 360 degrees. He opts for a heavy-duty lap belt.
Another car’s radiator erupts in a geyser of steam, which turns silver in the spotlights, gilding Wild Bill’s wide grin as he wheels the Pontiac around. He sprints the length of the track and rams Cline twice in quick succession, then does the same to Good. Cline’s car dies. Orndorff and Good get in a pushing match, front to front, like boxers in a clench.
The corral is littered with six carcasses. Besides Good’s Cadillac, the other still-rolling vehicle is a 1991 Crown Victoria that Orndorff hadn’t counted on. Both Good’s Caddy and the Vic are snouting — their frames are folding up like drawbridges, leaving them vulnerable.
In contrast, Orndorff’s Caprice frame is stiff, while his Pontiac body harmlessly peels away.
Good retreats into a corner to turn around. Orndorff follows and wedges Good’s car between Cline’s and a Jersey barrier.
Good is trapped. Orndorff backs up, charges forward into Good, again and again, until Good’s car stops struggling.
Next, Orndorff stalks the Vic and pins it against a steaming disabled car. He pounds it on the passenger side once, again, the coup de grace. And that’s it. Wild Bill’s white Pontiac is the sole survivor.
One of Sarge’s sons waves the checkered flag.
Orndorff reaches his left arm out and acknowledges the cheers, but he does not stop the car. His sons, other fans and well-wishers scramble down to congratulate him, but Orndorff, in a show of victorious swagger, cruises out of the ring and back to the pits.
When he finally climbs out, he strides back to the track to congratulate the other drivers and to enjoy being a champion again. He stops to see Sarge, who counts out 25 $20 bills, and hands over two trophies, a little one for the heat, and a big one for the feature.
“It’s been a while,” Orndorff says to Sarge. “I guess I’m not too old.”
“All those long hours paid off,” says Zach, hovering nearby with his brother.
“That felt so good, boys,” the father says.
While Orndorff shakes hands and slaps backs, Josh starts fielding requests for his father’s attention.
“Dad! They want a picture of you by the car,” he says.
A few minutes later, there is a request for autographs. Orndorff wanders over to where two girls and a boy are standing on the other side of a railing.
Too awed to speak, they silently hand over their grandstand tickets for the signature: “Wild Bill.”
“You guys going to drive derby cars?” he asks.
The boy raises his hand. “I will.”