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 in Northern Virginia, 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.