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History of Demolition Derby
Topic Started: Feb 24 2010, 11:24 PM (10,174 Views)
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Support your local demo derby.

Here’s a brief but detailed history of demolition derby. B)

The Beginnings

The exact origins of the first derbies are a scatter shot of opinions. The first widespread and documented version of a race in which the destruction of cars was the intended goal involved Larry Mendelsohn, a stock car driver at Islip Speedway. He began promoting derbies in New York in 1958 after realizing that people enjoyed the wrecks during circle track racing as much as the race itself. In Wisconsin in 1950, a used car lot salesmen named Crazy Jim held a demo derby as a promotion for his business using old Fords and became a promoter in the region. Other sources say that demolition style of racing was happening in Chicago as far back 1950. These were held at Soldier Field, Sante Fe Speedway and later at the Route 66 Speedway. These team demo races are still held today at the Route 66 Raceway where it hosts the Tournament of Destruction. Later in 1960, thrill show stuntman Stoney Roberts had extra time in his thrill show. One guy didn’t show up to do a car jump which required 8 cars in total. So the 7 cars that were on site at the fair on the track were ordered to drive in a free for all style race, last car running wins. The crowd went wild and soon Stoney Roberts Promotions would be born promoting derbies exclusively.

TV/Media Coverage

Coverage of derbies has had its ups and downs over the years. ABC’s Wide World of Sports covered derbies in the 60s-early 70s. In the last 15 years, they have shown up in specials on various cable channels such as ESPN, Discovery, National Geographic, TLC, Speed, and History Channel. The sport perhaps had its last widespread exposure on live TV during the late 90s on the now defunct TNN station, which is now now Spike TV. As part of the Motor Madness series on TNN, derbies across the country were held ranging from Iowa, Nebraska, Florida, Texas ect. Qualifying heats were timed and the winners were chosen by the number of quality hits given as opposed to the last # of cars running. Dutch Holland, a very famous promoter from California, oversaw these shows. Vids of these shows can be seen on Youtube.com and feature several local drivers from here in Illinois including Rob Harder and Vic Whaley JR who are both still active in the sport.


In the winter of 2012, the excellent 'Kings of Crash' debuted on Velocity. It follows a group of hard hitting Utah drivers over the summer traveling the entire state of Utah and nearby states. In car cameras and over head crane shots help give this show a pro style element. Highly recommended and many episodes can be viewed on youtube. Speaking of youtube. hundreds if not thousands of derbies have now been added on youtube as well. User posted content along with independent recording companies such as Dylan's Camcording, Derbytees, and Cheater's Video have helped spread the profile of many larger county fair shows along with high dollar payout shows.

Meet the Smashers

Throughout the years, finding strong cars that could take a lot of abuse has been priority #1 for derby drivers. In the early years dating back to the 1950s, any older car that would run seemed to work best. Perhaps the first style of cars that had success in derbies, were the late 40s Chevy Deluxe models. They came equipped with inline 6 engines. These cars in the derby world were referred to as ‘Humpbacks’ due to their somewhat oddly shaped trunk. Drivers found that the inline 6, the Blue Flame, could take much abuse and not overheat as quickly as Fords and Chryslers of the same time frame. These styles of cars were run primarily in the 1950s through the early 1960s as they were cheap and plentiful for the time.

The next dominant series of cars used were the ’57-’59 Ford Fairlanes and ’60-’64 Ford Galaxies. These had full robust frames and stock rear leaf spring packs. This combo made the trunks very strong which is crucial in derbies back then cause by using the trunks, it helped protect the cooling system and engine in the front. Ford’s Y-block 292 V-8 also proved to be quite reliable providing more than enough power to crunch the competition. These Fords dominated the sport from the mid 60s up through the late 80s. Out in California and other western states, a handful of these old school Fords are still being run at derbies all across the Pacific Coast.

Here’s a vid of a movie called Steel Arenas from 1973 which shows a bunch of late 50 and early 60s Fords tearing up the competition.


The next generation of cars that drivers turned to in mass was the 1971-1976 Chevy Impalas and Caprice models. In pure stock form, they were designed to dominate derbies. The full size wagons are the most desired of these bowties due to their stock leaf spring rear suspension. The ’71-’73 models are a bit less desired in sedan and hardtop form as they have C-Channel rear frame rails as opposed to the ’74-’76 models which have boxed frames. All wagons from these years have leaf springs while the sedans/hardtops only had stock coil springs over the rear axle. The small block 350 Chevy motor, which was offered in these cars, is widely regarded as the best stock motor to run in derbies. In 1974, due to federal government regulations, all cars had to be equipped with bumpers that could sustain zero damage in low speed crashes. This was a godsend to derby drivers! The ‘flat’ ’74 and ’75 Impala front bumpers are considered to be among the strongest drivers can put on their cars with current prices fetching upwards of $200-$250 just for one bumper. Due to these new regulations in the mid 70s, car manufactures could no longer just offer a chrome skin bumper. Upon these new mandated rules, Chevy like Chrysler and Ford started to place steel pieces/beams behind the chrome ‘skins’. When the chrome outer skin and inner skin are welded together, it really helps improve the overall strength. Likewise for similar reasons, the ’curved’ 76 Impala bumper is also held in high regards as well. These Impalas/Caprice along with their GM brothers Buick, Pontiac and Olds plus Caddies have been dominant derby cars from the early 80s all the way to present day.

If the late 40s Chevys were the 1st generation of successful derby cars, the late 50s-early 60s Fords the 2nd generation, and the early to mid 70s Chevies the 3rd, then the ’79 and newer Ford Crown Victorias will surely make up the 4th. Basically any ’79-’09 Crown Victoria and their Mercury and Lincoln brothers seem to be the last great car that drivers can use to smash to victory lane. As the last full frame, full size rwd V-8 powered car produced in the US, they are the strongest car built in the last 30 years in the US. Already these ‘new style’ cars are having great success on derby tracks across the United States and Canada. With all the modern safety equipment and stock parts on these cars though, drivers essentially have to replace all key mechanical components on these cars to have a chance while competing with the old iron cars from the 60s and 70s. Often times, the stock front bumper, radiator, engine, transmission, engine cradle, rear axle and front/rear suspensions are swapped out in favor of Chevy or other Ford products. So much is altered or allowed these days that drivers with old iron cars claim that promoters cater to the new style Fords by allowing so much part swapping. The '79-'91 Panther Fords all had steel engine cradles and front suspensions which can be easily swapped into the '98-'02 and '03 Vics. Some drivers if allowed are replacing teh stock aluminum engine cradles/front suspension of the '03+ Vics with ones from 80s Mopars, late 70s mid size Mopars or even '67-'73 Imperials. These hybrid builds are getting out of hand in the minds of many.

Other notable cars which have had tremendous success are ’74-’78 Chrysler New Yorkers and Newport, 1961-1969 Lincoln Continentals, and the aforementioned ’71-’76 Cadillac. While the previously mentioned ‘4 generations’ of derby cars listed above did dominate a good chunk of derbies during their day, no other car has had the durability nor the reputation as the Imperial made by Chrysler. In particular the ’64-’66, and ’67-’73 models proved to be so much tougher than other cars that they became banned across much of the United States beginning in the 1980s and later. In addition, they featured wrap around front fenders when welded to the rest of the body create one continuous piece of iron. If rating systems could be applied to the front and rears of derby cars, the ’66 and older Imperials would get a 10 for the trunks and a high mark of say 8 or higher for the fronts. They also featured Chrysler Torsion Bar front suspension which eliminated coil springs up front. When increased, this type of suspension can help raise the entire front end of a car up making it quite strong. Factor in all these plusses for the IMPs and the weight of these land barges hovering around 5,000 pounds and the recipe for a dominant car is set. The ’67-’73 Imperials moved over to unit body construction which featured unique sub frames making the front ends of these cars a 10 in strength. Finding places that allow Impeials is becoming quite difficult to find.

Building Guidelines/Rules

The sport today looks far differently than what it did 25, 10 or even 5 years ago. The amount of welding is a super hot topic among drivers, promoters and even fans. Some promoters still run ‘stock’ shows, ie no reinforcement allowed at all other than perhaps adding chain or #9 wire to secure doors from falling off plus drivers must use the stock engine/transmission, driveshaft ect. These seem to be the exception and not the norm. Most promoters now allow all door seams to be welded shut, 4 point drivers cages made of steel, and the trunk lids to be welded shut as well. Generally speaking they also allow steel all-thread to be run in 4 places to secure the hood shut. Welding on the frame seems to be of 3 options with the first being from the A-Arms forward, meaning essentially the point on the frame from the wheels forward. Other promoters and fair boards allow all top frame seams to be welded solid while other places all top and bottom frame seams welded. The width of the weld can very from promoter to promoter. In addition to these reinforcements, drivers are also sometimes allowed to weld steel straps from the frame to the bumpers to ensure they don’t fall off. If that is deemed illegal, then strands of #9 wire or chains are used.

The altering of the rear end of cars is another hot trigger topic. This seems to depend a bunch on location of the event and the promoter. In places like Indiana, cars typically are allowed to weld on 22” x 0.25” steel plates onto the outer side of the rear humps. In other areas, leaf spring conversions are legal. This is done by replacing the stock coil springs and adding mounts and hangers to the frame in order to install leaf springs. On the smaller ’80 and newer cars, this significantly helps them be able to compete vs the larger older cars of the 70s. The number of leaf springs per sides does vary from 5-9 or more allowed. Still a few promoters don’t allow any alterations to increase the strength of the suspension or frames.

Basic safety rules do seem to be in place regardless where and whom promotes derbies today. Helmet, long sleeve shirts, and 4 point driver’s cages are pretty standard today. Some promoters do allow the drivers cage to be bolted or welded to the frames for added safety and support. Rollover bars can also be ran off the drivers cage to insure the roof doesn’t collapse in case of a car being flipped. The stock fuel tank and battery must be moved, the battery to the front passenger floor area and a small typically 5 gallon tank placed and covered in the back floor area. Cars must be stripped of any hazardous or flammable items such as the carpet, headliner, rear seats and such on the inside. Outside, cars must have chrome trim, fiberglass, headlights/taillights, and the grill removed. A large diameter hole must be cut in the hood as well to put out engine fires.

Technological Advancements

Back in the early beginnings, drivers typically just removed the windows and headlights and drove the cars as is. Most of the time they didn’t bother to move the gas tanks, battery or cut off the stock exhaust. Slowly though the years drivers began to weld doors up door seams with small plates, add drivers cages and weld frames. Only back in the late 80s here in Illinois, most drivers didn’t weld their doors or even have a drivers cage. I can remember back to the late 90s when most drivers were still running pretty much pure stock cars at derbies with doors flying open, passenger compartment being crushed severally and cars looking like an accordion at the end of the night.

This is how derby cars use to be built here in Central Illinois back in the early 90s. This aired on the University of Illinois’ PBS station in 1994. Offers a really good look at how far building of cars has come.

In just the last 10 years, the amount of new products and ideas has pushed the building of derby cars further and further. In addition to the swapping of rear suspensions, welding, and other reinforcements allowed, drivers now have other options of keeping their cars going despite very brutal conditions. Perhaps no other advancement has been as crucial as the Ice Cube 355 motor that is built by Gropp Automotive Specialties and Gard Speed Shop. While stock small block Chevy and Chrysler motors can run quite well in derbies, they often don’t last a long time after the radiator has been shattered, causing them to overheat within about 20 minutes or shorter. The Ice Cube motor has had years of research behind it and is specifically built for demo derbies. Their ability to run very cool even without the benefit of a working cooling system has developed quite the reputation. Cars with the Ice Cube have won such notable derbies as the $10,000 to win Metal Mayhem and Battle at The Border. Other notable engine builders include C&M Racing and Colyer.

Other notable advancements include the use of oil coolers as well as transmission coolers. The idea behind the trans cooler is to continually keep trans fluid running through ice/cold water so transmissions don’t overheat. The use of slider drive shafts has also proliferated. When the frame rails bend on the front and rear of a car, it tends to rip the stock driveshaft out of the transmission or the rear axle. Slide drive shafts have the ability to extend or shorten, thus allowing a driver to keep power to the rear tires even if the frame is completely trashed. U-Joints telescoping steering components are also used replacing the stock steering linkage on cars. This telescoping style steering allow the driver to still be able to steer even if the front frame is bent and the driver can’t see cause the front end is sky high. In stock forms, the steering linkage can easily break leaving a driver with perhaps a very strong car still going, but no way to steer. Distributor protectors are essentially homemade steel frames that are bolted onto the top of the engine block to insure the distributor isn’t damage. Otherwise as the hood and fenders crumple, this might cause interference with the distributor and cause the car to lose power. The type of tires and rims used has also seen significant changes. Solid rubber forklift tires, military grade tires and high ply rating tires seem to be among the most liked now. Super Sport truck rims found on late 80s and early 90s Chevy vehicles are also popular as the valve stem is on the inside of the rim, not the outside where they could be easily ripped off. All the above advancements has led to cars that literally can very long periods of time and not break. These advancements are not cheap by any means. The Ice Cube motor can cost upwards of $4,500. Slider drive shafts can roll from $450 or more. Trans coolers can run in the hundreds and custom made transmissions are even more $. If all these custom pieces are added, the total value of a car can shoot to beyond $10,000.

Future of Derbies

With the number of full size, full frame, rear wheel drive cars being built today, where will the derby cars of tomorrow come from? The last Ford police cruisers based on the Crown Vic are coming to a halt along with its Mercury and Lincoln counterparts. The last full frame car made by GM was the Chevy Caprice in 1995. It remains to be seen if the current generation of Chrysler 300 and Dodge Chargers will be crash worthy as none are cheap enough to use yet in competition. Other possible cars that are on the road today which may be coming to your local derby track are Nissan Altimas, Ford Taurus fwd version, or even perhaps the fwd Impala. Don’t laugh, it might become reality! Figure that the new style Fords from 1980+ will be available to drivers for the next 25-30 years as we still see many cars from the 60s/70s today still used, and the full size class should be solvent until around 2035. With older cars from the 60s and 70s becoming harder to find, some places are turning to running ’80 & newer exclusively. This seems to be quite divisive as some drivers then end up stuck with old iron from the 70s that they can’t run at their hometown shows and are forced to travel long distances to run.

According to Bill Lowenburg’s excellent book, Crash Burn Love compacts have become a popular class due to their availability and overall affordability. Like in the full size classes though, extensive mods and building by drivers seems to have put some weekend warrior type drivers to feel pushed away and not competitive in this class. Other classes such as a true mid size class, mini-vans, and full size trucks have popped up in the last few years as well.

I predict that with the number of classic full size American cars dwindling in the coming years plus the sheer number of full size trucks that truck classes might end up being the largest attractions in a few decades. Trucks offer full frames, rear wheel drive and most have stock rear leaf springs. These would be ultimately easier for derby drivers to alter into demolition vehicles than smaller fwd cars of today. The trucks would also in theory be easier to repair and run multiple times due to their size, weight and strength. They would accept V-8 engine swaps, axles swaps and key components.

Add in the ongoing climate politically speaking of going green, and derbies might not last into the future. While I’m hardly a conservative at heart, I can’t imagine a time in the future where county fairs don’t have derbies as they are typically the #1 money maker at county fairs. If environmental regulations do rob us of derbies, it would be a giant crush to a way of life in the USA and to an entire culture.
Edited by craftymore, Jul 2 2013, 11:56 PM.
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The Mustang II is a Mustang too!
Thanks for the write up, Zach!

Derbies will always have a future. You really think the environmentalists can stop derbies, monster truck rallies, and NASCAR races? In America? HA! I look forward to the day when Grave Digger crushes a row of Priuses! Or an all electric car derby would be cool too.
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Support your local demo derby.

Article has been updated regarding to media exposure and the 'smashers'. ;) If any of the drivers can add anything please let me know. Likewise if anything is incorrect or incomplete, please shoot me a pm.
Edited by craftymore, Jul 2 2013, 11:58 PM.
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