Shock and pain hit Rusty’s body just as fast as his brain could process it. Bone-jarring hits were nothing new to the demolition derby veteran, but direct hits to his driver’s door were out of the norm, not to mention illegal. He looked to his left and saw the all-too-familiar black and green paint scheme of his rival, Parker. He could clearly make out the stupid looking black, three-quarter helmet that Parker wore because he said it made him look like “The Intimidator.” “Sure, and my butt hair looks like Richard Petty’s mustache,” was Rusty’s response.
For six years, this rivalry had taken shape and become overly bitter. Bitter, mainly because Parker could never quite figure out how to beat Rusty. It started out innocent enough at the LeGrande County Fair.
Rusty found himself in the top 3 finishers of his heat, giving him an automatic berth into the LeGrande main event, or “feature.” Parker had finished his heat just outside the top 3, which meant he had one more chance to gain entry into the feature; by winning the consolation heat. The consolation heat was open to any car that didn’t qualify for the feature, as long as the pit crew could get the car running. Parker narrowly squeaked into the finishers of the consolation heat. Again, down to the final four cars, he had gotten hung up on another car’s bumper, the mangled metal meshing together. As he was being counted out by the official, one of the other three cars that were still running burst into flames. A red flag was waved, halting the action, and putting the two-minute clock on Parker on hold. If you fail to move and make contact with another car that is still competing after two minutes, you are considered to be out and are disqualified. Because the engine fire had halted the action while fire fighters rushed in with extinguishers, Parker was afforded a “gimme” into the feature. The engine of the car that had caught fire had been doused in carbon from the extinguishers, effectively quelling the fire and suffocating the engine’s carburetor.
Once the arena’s retaining wall had been repositioned, opening the lane to the pits, all qualifying cars had a final 20 minutes for any last-minute repairs before the feature was set to begin. Parker feverishly checked over his car’s vitals. Topping off the fuel cell, ensuring there were no leaks in the radiator, and replacing the popped tire that had been pierced by a jagged piece of metal hanging off of one of the other cars.
“Might wanna hammer the ends of that bumper in some so you don’t get hung up again,” Rusty offered from his pit stall right next to Parker’s.
“Might wanna worry about your own car and stop spying on what I’m doin’,” was Parker’s short response.
Once the starting grid for the feature had been set, Rusty found himself directly across the arena from Parker’s black and green sedan. Parker pointed at Rusty, then made a slitting motion across his throat. Rusty over exaggerated a wink to make sure Parker didn’t miss it from 60 feet away. “Nothing like a little gamesmanship,” Rusty thought to himself.
The P.A. announcer started a countdown from 10 with help from the crowd. As the crowd reached the end, the flag man vigorously waved the green flag, signifying the start of the main event. Parker mashed down on the accelerator, attempting to build up as much speed as the muddy arena would permit. Rusty hesitated for a brief moment to let the field tip their strategies. The car immediately next to Rusty made a sharp turn to get his car turned the opposite direction, leaving Rusty nowhere to go. What the driver behind Rusty had missed was Parker’s all-out assault on whatever was in front of him. The crowd recoiled in their seats from the sound of crashing metal. Parker walloped the car between him and Rusty, hitting just in front of the wheel well. Once Parker’s vision had stopped rattling, he realized that he had missed his intended mark. Seething, he slammed the car in reverse and stomped on the gas. Only this time, his car didn’t budge. Parker’s front bumper had shoved the other car’s rear door into the interior of the car, leaving Parker’s bumper to get caught in the ravaged sheet metal of the door jamb.
By now, Rusty had maneuvered himself free from being pinned into his starting position. On his way by Parker he could see the driver frantically bouncing around in the driver’s seat, his rear wheels spinning in place at nearly eighty miles per hour. Rusty caught a glimpse of Parker and simply shrugged his shoulders in an “I told you so” kind of manner. When the dust had settled from that first encounter, Parker was the second car out, only beating the car he hit right from the get go, and Rusty was standing on stage receiving the first place trophy and prize money.
The next encounter came a couple of months later at the Tri-State Fall Fest, toward the end of that same derby season. Rusty showed up with the same station wagon he had used at LeGrande County. The car was still structurally and mechanically solid, and had already proven itself to be a winner. Wouldn’t you know it; who pulled into the pit stall right next to Rusty? None other than his ol’ pal Parker.
Once Parker had pulled into his pit area and slid out of his pickup truck, he made his way around the trailer that was hauling his latest demo derby entry. Of course he took the long way around so he could get a few verbal jabs in on Rusty. “Prize money from LeGrande not enough to come up with a new car?”
“Why mess with a winning formula?” Rusty fired back with his own question. He could hear Parker grumbling under his breath. “Must still be a touchy subject,” Rusty commented to nobody in particular.
Tri-State ended in similar fashion to LeGrande County. Rusty found himself battling Parker in the feature, although this exchange was a little more drawn out. 14 of the final 16 cars had been eliminated for one reason or another. Parker spotted Rusty directly across the arena, on the other side of several broken down cars. Parker stomped on the brake and simultaneously slammed the gear shift upward on the steering column into reverse. Immediately, he felt his car jolt from transitioning from one direction to the opposite. He instantly recognized the grinding and dull thud of his transmission dropping out. He was dead in the water and could do nothing else but curse himself. “You over-eager idiot!” Parker chided himself. He got so anxious to hunt down Rusty that he completely forgot driver’s education 101: You can only go in one direction at a time. Parker had eliminated himself through his own stupidity, but Rusty was unaware. He rounded the arena, lining up the rear-end of his war wagon with the front of Parker’s car. Rusty stood on the throttle, gaining as much momentum as the muddy track would allow, and smashed into Parker’s immobile auto.
The crowd roared with appreciation for the massive crash, while Parker’s cursing was redirected toward Rusty. Parker begrudgingly reached out of his driver’s window for the stick taped to his car’s roof support pillar. Parker seethed as he wrapped his fingers around the wooden baton with a small red flag at the top and yanked on it. “Breaking your flag” signifies to the field of participants and fans alike, that you are conceding defeat.
As soon as the checkered flag waved, Parker climbed through his window and stormed back to the pit area while Rusty and the third place finisher were called to the stage to receive their prize winnings for the evening. “Mail my damn trophy to me!” Parker barked, although he was far from ear-shot of any official connected to the event.
Back in the pits, Rusty casually stepped over into Parker’s designated area. “I’ve got something for you,” Rusty said, extending his arm and presenting Parker’s runner-up trophy.
“You know exactly what you can do with that,” was Parker’s retort.
Rusty simply relaxed his grip and let the trophy plummet to the gas and oil-soaked, muddy ground. “Just trying to be civil. Since yours wasn’t as heavy to carry as mine, I figured it would be a nice gesture to drop it off here for you.”
The following year’s derby season resumed at the local Spring Fling, and the rivalry didn’t miss a beat. The main difference with this matchup though, is that Rusty and Parker didn’t have to wait for the feature to cross paths. In the second heat of the event, Rusty and Parker found themselves amongst eight other cars vying for a spot in the feature. Rusty was in his all too familiar station wagon that he had spent the winter months tuning and reinforcing. Parker, once again, had a brand new sedan he was ready to inaugurate.
It didn’t take long for the two experienced drivers to pick apart the small field of cars that kept getting in their way. In less than ten minutes there were only four cars still running. Rusty decided to take it easy, and see if one of the other three would do something stupid and let him walk right into the feature. By him lying low, he might as well have painted a bullseye on his car. Parker instantly recognized the tactic, as he’d attempted to use that same strategy countless times before. Parker honed in on Rusty’s wagon, mashed down the brake pedal and jerked the wheel, pinning Rusty in as Parker made contact. Parker looked at Rusty and grinned, all while blatantly putting his car in park. Since Parker was the one who made contact, Rusty was now on the clock to free himself and make contact with another car that was still in contention.
As Rusty feverishly shifted between drive and reverse, trying to make room to wriggle out of his current position, he started to notice smoke coming from underneath the hood of his car. What he couldn’t see, was that his drive shaft had snapped after his sixth gear change, so his motor was taking all of the abuse and none of the power was being relayed to the rear drive wheels. The overwhelmed power plant couldn’t keep up and was in the process of overheating. Rusty had nothing to lose, as he was sitting in fourth place, just outside of the finalists to make the feature. Although this car had served him extremely well, Rusty was well aware that you can only rely on a car for so long when you intentionally expose it to severe abuse on a repeated basis. His time expired, and so did his plans for the rest of his evening.
Once the track was starting to get cleared of the wreckage and debris, Parker decided to showboat and try to win a few style points with the crowd. He gunned his engine and started to fishtail as he exited the arena. Much to his dismay, his car got a little too sideways before he could recover and popped his tire right off the rim. Normally, that means nothing but a quick tire change once you get back to your pit. Unfortunately for Parker, as his tire broke free of its seal to the rim, a rooster tail of water went flying into the sky. An age-old trick for derby drivers, known as “water ballasting” your tires, you simply fill your tires roughly halfway with water and use air for the remaining inflation. It is a trick that was banned long ago, as the focus on driver safety has garnered a lot of attention. Water-filled tires provide more traction and add weight close to the ground, helping lower a car’s center of gravity. That means they provide a smoother ride over rut filled derby tracks, increasing the car’s inertia. Basically, it increases the “wow factor” while decreasing driver safety.
Officials instantaneously recognized the situation and promptly disqualified Parker, not only from the heat, but from the entire event, meaning that Rusty was given a pass into the feature. The bad news for Rusty was that repairing his car before the feature was on the far side of possible.
Back in the pits, a shoving match broke out. “You cost me a win, you prick!” Rusty shouted at Parker, giving him a firm push. “Cost me my car too!”
“I did you a favor, putting that car out of its misery,” Parker shot back, slapping Rusty’s hands away from him.
Rusty sprang toward Parker, knocking him to the ground. The two rolled around in the dirt. While they tussled, gawking onlookers began to crowd around before event staff could break up the fracas. As the two drivers were being pulled apart, Parker’s brother and chief mechanic, Eric, came out of left field with a right cross to Rusty’s cheek to put an exclamation point on the altercation. Both drivers were then given a nice escort from the fairgrounds property by some four door sedans with flashing lights on top.
Rusty opted out of the remainder of that derby season; biding his time while he carefully constructed his next fortress on wheels.
The next year, Parker was forced to miss every event due to some ongoing health issues. Each of the drivers noticed the glaring absence of their rival during the others’ absence.
More recently, the two found themselves in a sea of DIY backyard racers, this time at the River’s Bend Freedom Festival.
To nobody’s surprise, Rusty drove his way into the feature, and to the chagrin of everyone familiar with him, Parker managed to squeak his way into the final heat as well.
“Well, well, well,” Rusty thought to himself. “Here we go again.” He could see the black and green paint taunting him from four cars away.
Parker sat behind his steering wheel, revving the engine and licking his lips. He couldn’t wait to lay some metal to Rusty’s latest rust bucket.
The countdown started from 10. The green flag dropped once the countdown ended and the drivers began jockeying for position in the rectangular battlefield. One nameless driver barreled across the mud soaked track, straight toward the beaten down trunk section of a sedan that was lined up opposite him from the starting grid. The battered rear-end of the target car served as a ramp as the offending car made contact at full speed, giving it a clear path to the roof of the hapless driver that absorbed the crash. The red flag flew, halting the action in its tracks so officials could assess any injuries that may have occurred from the awe-inspiring collision. Only Parker failed to yield. Parker continued accelerating with Rusty in his crosshairs.
Rusty’s head snap backward from the impact to the rear of his car. He had relaxed his muscles when he saw the red flag, not expecting to absorb any punishment for the next minute or two. With the field of derby cars at rest, you could hear the collective gasp from the packed crowd in attendance.
Parker immediately drew a black flag, signifying that his night was finished due to disqualification. As dangerous as this motorsport is, the organizers take driver safety as seriously as possible.
As the feature heat resumed, Rusty continued to mete out the punishment on every remaining competitor that crossed his path. Unfortunately, with every crash came a jolt of pain down Rusty’s neck. He could feel the whiplash setting in from Parker’s monstrous illegal hit mere minutes earlier. It was getting harder and harder for Rusty to turn his head, which is a basic necessity in demolition derbies, as cars cannot contain any glass, including mirrors. As each car was eliminated and each driver begrudgingly broke their flag, Rusty became more of a sitting duck. His car was running as smooth as ever, but his ability to maneuver it was becoming more problematic. If an active car wasn’t lined up directly in front of him, then he didn’t have a prayer of initiating any contact. Eventually, Rusty’s luck ran out, but not before he managed to secure a third place finish.
Back in the pits, Rusty made a point to walk by Parker’s designated area with his trophy in hand.
“Looks a little small, don’t you think?” Parker fired off before Rusty could get anything out of his mouth.
“It’s not always about size, ya hillbilly. Besides, I would expect you to be impressed with any trophy at all,” Rusty shot back. “I just wanted to let you know that I still managed to secure one of these even though I took one more hit than everybody else out there. This thing probably would be bigger if I could still manage to turn my head.”
“Well turn your head and check this out,” Parker said, raising his middle finger to the sky in Rusty’s direction. “Does that help you feel any better?”
“Classy,” was Rusty’s one word response, ending the hostile exchange. “Gonna have to really keep my head on a swivel next month at the state fair,” Rusty thought to himself.
Each driver spent the next 3 weeks in their garages, reinforcing weak points on their cars and fine-tuning their heavily modified engines. The amount of money and work that goes into a car that is designed to be totaled is astonishing, but it is all done in the name of competition.
Rusty’s thoughts were brought back to the State Fair and his current situation. He felt a piercing pain in his ribs from this latest hit. He glanced down and saw that his driver door was crumpled and caved in, a section of the steel reinforcement penetrating his side. Next, he noticed a small string of blood dripping from his lip onto his lap. The edges of Rusty’s vision blurred, but he could make out the flag man pointing a black flag at Parker. Without the black flag being waved in a driver’s direction, it only served as a warning and not automatic disqualification. “Why isn’t he getting DQ’ed?” Rusty wondered.
For the first time in Parker’s driving career, his mal intent was executed perfectly. By aiming his rear bumper in the direction of the car that was stalled in front of Rusty, he could make solid impact directly on Rusty’s driver’s door, without making it look like a blatant rule violation, as long as he made contact with the stalled car as well. After the second collision, he could see Rusty’s head droop to his chin. Parker read the body language to imply “Mission accomplished.”
Officials failed to notice Rusty’s inactivity until his car was bumped by another car and Rusty’s body leaned to one side, with no conscious reaction. The red flag flew, the action halted and paramedics sprinted to Rusty’s car. Within a matter of minutes, Rusty was surgically pulled from his car, strapped onto a body board, placed in the back of an ambulance, and was exiting the fairgrounds en route to the nearest hospital. Nobody knew that it was already too late.
Just like nobody knew Eric’s whereabouts during the driver’s meeting immediately prior to the first heat of the event. With every driver occupied in a mandatory meeting to review the rules, Parker’s brother and chief mechanic was left to wander through the pits unmonitored. There was nothing stopping him from sabotaging Rusty’s car and weakening the welds to the support structure inside the driver’s door.
The action in the arena resumed once the ambulance was off-site, and when the dust settled on the event, Parker stood on stage to receive the grand prize trophy and award money as the PA announcer made a surprise announcement.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have just been advised that the fair council has made an emergency ruling to award all prize money to the participant that left in an ambulance moments ago. It is a small gesture to show support for that driver and his family.”
Rusty’s teenage son, Ricky, approached the stage to receive the prize money on his way to his car to leave for the hospital. As Ricky was handed the checks for first, second, and third place, the audience slowly began to stand; one-by-one at first, then nearly in unison until every crowd member was on their feet out of respect for the man who had been brutally murdered right in front of them – even if nobody aside from Parker and Eric was aware of that fact. Parker seethed. Even in death, Rusty still managed to steal the spotlight from him.