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Mobtown Beat

Death Race 2001

Gentlemen, Destroy Your Engines

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 5/30/2001

Kenny Vieth and Dan Elwood are proud owners of a fully loaded Cadillac. It sports leather seats, power windows, and a beefy V-8 engine. And on June 2, Elwood will be behind the Caddy's tilt-steering wheel as the car gets, in all likelihood, totally demolished.

Vieth and Elwood are entering their first demolition derby, that unabashedly American pastime that mixes full-contact violence with fossil-fuel roar. (Think football meets NASCAR.) It's a simple setup: A collection of Detroit rust buckets gather in a muddy field and careen into one another, each driver trying to disable the others' cars. The last rig still moving is the winner. The aggressive, noisy, and potentially dangerous sport dates to the late 1950s or early '60s and its popularity peaked in the '70s. But with an apparent surge in interest nationally, it seems poised for new prominence in the 21st century. In Maryland, however, the June 2 event remains a rare relic of that bygone, bang-'em-up era. And Vieth and Elwood are Baltimore's only known bang-'em-uppers, according to a national demo-derby organization.

Vieth, 43, and Elwood, 42, grew up watching demolition derby on TV's Wild World of Sports, and both recall seeing it live at the now-defunct Dorsey Speedway in Anne Arundel County. They've been friends and Fells Point neighbors for years.

"I've always been fascinated with demolition derby," Vieth says. "And now's my chance to have my own racing team."

Like so many great ideas, their decision to derby was spawned during a late-night drinking bout--not long after learning about the June 2 derby being held at Budd's Creek Raceway down in St. Mary's County. But they needed a car.

A scan of the classifieds turned up something promising. "1977 Cadillac Eldorado; good engine transmission and breaks," an ad in The Sun read. Then there was the price--$350, which they managed to talk down to $300. (New Eldorados cost 10 grand back in the '70s. Elvis had one.)

While their Caddy still sports an impressive chrome grill, the rest is tricolored: original metallic turquoise paint, primer gray dappled on various extremities, and the tell-tale orange-brown of metal long exposed to water.

"Oh, it's a rust bucket," Vieth says, showing off the ride. "Just wait until you to hear it." He clambers into the blue-and-white interior. After several clattering false starts, the 425-cubic-inch engine grinds to life with all the sonic delicacy of a World War I biplane.

Vieth, co-owner of Fells Point's Henninger's Tavern, and Elwood, a licensed nurse working to develop HIV vaccines at Johns Hopkins Hospital's Center for Immunization Research, may not seem your average derby drivers, and they've gotten much of their old-fashioned derby know-how from a newfangled source: the Internet. But when it came to piloting the Caddy, Elwood seemed a natural. "He used to be a tugboat captain, so he's used to bumping things around," Vieth says. Ex-seaman Elwood offers his own credentials: "I've driven in Boston," he deadpans.

Of course, even notoriously wild-haired Boston motorists try to avoid accidents, while demo-derby drivers try to create them. Drivers must make regular contact with other cars; those who try to avoid collisions are called "sandbaggers" and may be disqualified. Another twist to derby driving is the time spent in reverse, using the rear of the car as a battering ram.

To bone up on such derby etiquette, the pair tapped the Internet Demolition Derby Association (IDDA), perhaps the sport's biggest booster.

"The sports is exploding," Sam Dargo, the group's present, says by phone from his Muncie, Ind., home. "It's been three years since we [launched the Web site], and we've seen our membership triple. We now have nearly 5,000 members."

According to the site (www.demo-derby.com), IDDA has 32 members in Maryland and just two in Baltimore. That a restaurateur and medical researcher have joined the sport's ranks is no surprise to Dargo. Demolition derby, he asserts, is growing and diversifying; an activity characterized in its early days by a bunch of "unsavory characters" now attracts college professors and doctors, he maintains. And while women make up only 2 percent of the IDAA, Dargo adds, "ladies are now coming into the sport in droves." As is the rest of the world: IDDA has members in 18 countries. (In Europe they call demolition derby "banger racing," and, yes, they sometimes use Mercedes and Volvos.)

You don't have to tell Dianna Haiden about the sport's surging popularity. She's president of the Silver Hill Lions Club in Prince George's County, sponsor of the June 2nd event. "I've already registered 150 cars for the upcoming derby," she says. "I hope they don't all show up, because we won't have room for them all."

The Lions have run derbies for 29 years, the past six at Budd's Creek, to raise money for various charities. Haiden figures about 20 percent of entrants in any given year are first-timers, and newbies like Vieth and Elwood have been known to win.

"We had a lady newcomer win a few years back," she says. "I'll never forget it. When it was over she jumped out of her car and said, 'Look I didn't even break a nail.'" (Haiden says she has never seen anyone emerge from her club's day of motorized mayhem with more by way of injuries than cuts and bruises.)

But for Vieth and Elwood, the biggest challenge of this year's derby may be getting their Caddy to Southern Maryland. They plan to drive her down well in advance of the event and prep the car on-site. ("She'll make it," Vieth says, with a mixture of confidence and hope.)

Regulations vary among derbies, but most require that all glass be removed from the vehicles and holes be cut in the trunk and hood (to make it easier to extinguish fires.) Some derbies require replacing original gas tanks with the plastic variety used in motor boats. Naturally, working seat belts and crash helmets are a must. The pair figure it'll cost another $500 to make their beast derby-worthy.

Before heading south they'll paint her in a friend's East Baltimore garage, but when it comes to aesthetics the budding derby men are at odds. After consulting a Spanish/English dictionary and learning that El Dorado roughly translates to "the gilded one," Vieth initially suggested bright gold.

"Oh yeah, why don't you just paint a big ol' target on the side while you're at it," Elwood responded.

Now Vieth is championing an elaborate cubist/Dadaist paint job--something like the camouflage paint used on World War I warships. Elwood's mind is elsewhere. "I just wanna smash up the f'ing car," he says.

So, do the two find anything vulgar or wasteful about pulverizing a still-working car--even a corroded heap whose odometer has long since flipped past 100,000 miles?

Uh, the answer would be "no."

"What else you gonna to do with these great honking things--the last flowering of American excess?" Elwood exclaims. "We're going to give it a nice Viking funeral."

Look for the results of team Vieth/Elwood's foray into demolition derbies in next week's City Paper.

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