Tim Vike (right) gets low: 'It's a stress reliever.'
You'd never guess by looking at Tim Vike's 20-year-old, dented-up Lincoln -- its interior stripped of all but the driver's seat and "Tuck this!" spray-painted on the trunk -- that it's the product of two weeks of hard work and an exacting attention to detail.
"Every year it's advancing," says Vike, an operator engineer from Stoughton who's a fixture at area demolition derbies. "When I started derbying, you just took the windows out and brought it to town. That was fun. Now the cars have a lot more speed, and you've gotta have a four-point safety cage so the car doesn't crush in on you. But it's a blast. It's a stress reliever."
It's unclear whether Vike is referring to actually careening around a derby track, smashing into every vehicle in sight, or getting a car into derby shape, often with the help of a sledgehammer. That's how his maroon Town Car developed an almost wedge-like rear end, all the better for ramming someone while driving in reverse. Vike estimates it took about eight hours to strip it down and another couple weeks to get ready for the Stoughton Fair's demolition derby, held last weekend in Mandt Park.
"It's 80% luck, 20% car and driver," he says. "I like to think I build a pretty good car, but if something stupid happens and you get hung up right away, you're done."
Just down the row of similarly modified junkers, Brian Schwoerer of Cottage Grove is making final adjustments to his heavily converted Madison Taxi cab, which still sports its roof light and door sign. Like many drivers, Schwoerer ("Schwel! The Schweester! Pipes!" offers a passing friend) prefers Ford bodies for their full tube frames, but has opted for mostly Chevy parts.
"This is a 2000 Ford Crown Vic with a Chevy 350 [engine], turbo 400 [transmission], a special drive shaft and a special Chevy rear end. And it'll be destroyed by the end of the night," he says with a grin. "There are lines coming up from my radiator to that old army box back there. We'll put ice in that, and that's my tranny box. A lot of it is in how you set the car up, motor and tranny, and then it's all luck and driving."
Schwoerer, who works for Dane County - "driving a snowplow in the winter, surveying in the summer and doing anything else that needs to get done" - has been entering demolition derbies for 10 years. He mixes in a few trips to out-of-state contests each summer.
"The competition is a lot different; you don't have to run against your buddies," he says. "And the Southern boys have a lot more time, and they know a lot more tricks. When you go to a big show, they all know how to drive."
Unlike other demolition derbies, where the last car running wins, Stoughton's is a test of aggression. A driver who gets knocked out might still take home the prize money. This setup prevents "sandbaggers" - drivers who avoid collisions in order to last longer.
"They don't want you using it like a Kmart parking lot, where you're parking over here and you're parking over there," says Schwoerer.
A demolition derby is not a tidy affair. At the height of an eight-car heat, the air is pungent with exhaust fumes and mud clods are flying into the crowd.
It's a thrilling sight to watch these cars plow into each other. Several spectacular collisions bring the capacity crowd in the grandstand to their feet.
The feature heat at the end of the night brings together the 15 drivers whose cars remain operational after the smaller qualifiers. Vike and Schoerer are among them, as is Stoughton's Scott Doughtie, whose 1978 Mercury Cougar was one of the shinier entrants at the beginning of the night.
"It's only got 88,000 miles on it," says Doughtie. "We're basically wrecking a new car tonight." But his crew works hard with a welding torch and sledgehammer to get it ready for the feature.
"It wasn't letting enough antifreeze through, so it was losing power. But it's in pretty good shape. It's got all its tires!" he says. "To tell you the truth, this is the only day I get to legally drive, so I'm just happy to be out there." (Doughtie's license was yanked for 27 months last fall for third-offense drunk driving.)
Of the three, Schwoerer lasts the longest in the feature heat, which is won by a driver from outside of the area. His roof light stays lit until only four cars remain.
Just before his cab gets taken out, Schwoerer can be seen pumping his fist behind the wheel after initiating a colossal crash that bends the front end of his car upwards. The reason for his nickname "Pipes" becomes clear, as the dual exhaust pipes jutting out from his hood ignite with a pair of blue flames that draw a lusty cheer from the crowd.