It is hard to date the first instance of demolition derby as an event, nor is it easy to pin-point with confidence where it originated. Some date the invention of the sport back to the 1930’s, some to 1950's, potentially in Long Island, New York. It is generally agreed on by derby enthusiasts that by the mid-1960’s the events were widespread at county fairs in North America and spreading to Europe, UK, Australia and beyond.
A demolition derby, at a glance, consists of cars or trucks smashing into each other in what can best be described as a mud ring. Last one standing wins the round... but they're not done. They often have a tough go at continuing on through rounds ahead against new contenders. Each derby has multiple categories for participants, each with specific rules that dictate ways cars are allowed to ram into each other, how vehicles are reinforced before the battle, what space or arena the event takes place in, how many mechanics are allowed to work on a car, and more. Listen closely and you'll hear jargon unique to demolition derby drift up above the smashing and revving. Some derbies are independent and stand-alone, while others are part of leagues encompassing townships, counties, or entire provinces/states. The structure for these events is similar in many rural communities in Canada, as well as in the United States.
The demolition of vehicles is only a part of this exciting theatre. How one modifies the car within the scope of official rules and keeps it driving after consecutive brutal rounds of smashing is a mechanics’ sport that is equally exciting, perhaps more than the smash-up that follows and it takes place in the pit: the heart of the derby, the area where teams congregate, work on their vehicles, and just enjoy the show. The event is about creative engineering solutions and intimate understanding of cars.
| find the demolition derby a symbolic celebration of the automobile. It speaks to communities’ historic dependence on and intimate relationship with the automobile and it is passed on generation to generation: many derbies’ starting event features young children using electric-powered toy cars. The event is also about local communities coming together—the teams involved are usually organized by local businesses, or first-responder departments, featuring local mechanics and are often fundraising for community—someone fighting cancer, a business that hit hard times, a new community space, local church.
These images have been taken at demolition derbies and county fairs between 2015 and 2017 in central, south and eastern Ontario. Majority were taken in the pit—the backstage of the event, where mechanics prepare or attempt to resurrect the cars for their showdown.
text by artist