Mud, mud, and more mud. The helmet didn't keep it from getting in my teeth, spackling my face, and splattering down my shirt. Rain poured into the windowless car, drenching everything. Wiping the helmet visor with my filthy gloves only smeared the dime-sized droplets, but my sleeves cleared away some of the residue. The engine-temperature gauge showed that my 1993 Plymouth Sundance Duster was running slightly hot, even though I'd cranked the heat and the blower before driving onto the figure-eight track. Despite the rising temperature, I held in the clutch during a brief red-flag stoppage and revved the 154,000-mile Chrysler/Mitsubishi V-6-partially to keep it from stalling but mostly to listen to its lusty, raw note. Really.
I had heard this engine's song thousands of times over the past ten years, but I knew that this night would be our last dance. Michigan's salt-filled winters had attacked the Duster's unibody and suspension parts like a famished piranha. So instead of keeping my first car forever, it would be destined for the scrapyard. The idea of selling the car for scrap had come from my dad, a retired Chrysler mechanic, who decreed that it just wasn't safe for me or anybody else to continue driving.
My old man's pronouncement sparked dozens of memories of my trips in the car, from high-school hockey practice to dates with my future wife to post-college job interviews. Was I going to accept my father's humiliating disposal proposal? No way, daddy-o. If I'm not going to keep this car forever, I told him, it at least deserves a proper send-off, one last blast, one final great memory.
And what better way to honor an object of affection than to smash it to pieces?
The Duster's six-cylinder engine precluded it from competing in the compact-car demolition derby, and its wheelbase was too short to smash with the full-size cars, so the front-wheel-drive-only figure-eight "race" was the only local option. I'd shouted myself hoarse at derbies in the past, but I'd never seriously considered driving. For the Duster, though, I'd gladly take the wheel. No matter that I'd never even seen a figure-eight race in person until this evening's first heat at the annual fair in my hometown of Chelsea, Michigan.
By that time, the extensive preparation work (see sidebar)-which called for interpreting three different sets of poorly written rules and requirements-was complete. Was I nervous? Um, yes. For two weeks before my first-ever race, I could barely sleep. I ate a total of two bananas during the forty-eight hours prior to Go Time. I didn't care so much about winning or my own physical well-being. I was more worried that (1) the Duster wouldn't start, (2) we wouldn't pass the tech inspection, (3) the engine would catch fire on the first lap to spite my act of automotive euthanasia, (4) I would disappoint the numerous family, friends, and coworkers in the stands, and (5) the car would lose the race but survive unscathed.
Part of me (the part that handwashed this car hundreds of times and used to freak out when people leaned against it) dreaded the first fender-bending contact with some jerk's crappy Pontiac Grand Am. But when we discovered more and more rust holes as we stripped the Plymouth, I became increasingly excited about sending off my old car with as much glory and as many dents as possible.
My plan kicked off in earnest once I finally took my turn on the saturated fairground track. On the first lap, I hit the red Ford Tempo driven by my childhood neighbor, derby veteran David Beeman, popping one of his tires. I bet you wish you'd given back my blue Ford toy tractor that I left in your sandbox, doncha? I thought as I whizzed by him and spread some Petty blue latex housepaint against the side of another car, angling the Duster around a mighty, sand-filled tractor tire that marked one of the two tight turns at either end of the arena.
A few laps later, I scraped between Nicholas Dude's gray Chevrolet Cavalier wagon and Brian Carden's yellow Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera and bulled into the lead after starting fourth out of five cars. Two seconds later, though, my dear Duster suddenly got pointier when those two of GM's finest squeezed me toward the concrete outside barrier. No matter: I was a one-Plymouth wrecking mallet, and with a mud-slinging reverse one-eighty, the leaders were back in my sights.
But just then the red flag flew and the siren blared. "Hold on, drivers. Stop your cars," the announcer shouted. "We've gotta clear the track again." When my adversaries had sandwiched me moments earlier, my rear bumper had torn off, bringing out the second of two red flags. (The first, it turned out, was for my severed front bumper.) After a futile attempt to reclear my visor, I left it raised, and the green flag waved again.
I slogged through the muck for lap after lap but slowly fell behind Carden and Dude. Despite my knobby front snow tires and bald rear rubber, the slick mud wouldn't consistently permit enough velocity (I probably never topped 25 mph) or braking to transfer the car's weight harshly enough to rotate the rear end. The leaders used handbrake turns, tacking on laps slightly faster than I could. (My pedal-operated e-brake had been frozen for years.) I had only one choice: plow into them as hard as possible at the intersection and try to knock them out. The Duster wasn't done yet.
I nailed Carden, who was enjoying a healthy lead, and Beeman-hard-in a neck-snapping double impact. The crowd cheered and Beeman's car died, but the Duster slid wide of the course, forcing me to backtrack. Later, as Carden saw the white flag on lap eleven, Dude's Cavalier sideslammed me, knocking loose the Duster's catalytic converter.
The smoking cat dropped into the mud, the engine quit, and my first car coasted to a stop, never to run again. The Plymouth's engine wouldn't restart without the catalyst. Twenty seconds after the Duster died, Carden's yellow number 80 Oldsmobile took the checkered flag, earning $100 and a berth in a semifinal (which, along with the final, was canceled due to lightning). Dude was awarded $50 for finishing second, and I won $25 for third.
A few days later, a gigantic scrapyard crane grabbed the Duster by its roof and unceremoniously dropped it, like an empty beer can, onto a three-story-high heap of old appliances, road signs, and other waste. For 2800 pounds of car, we got $119. A few of those dollars were for the mud still caked all over it.