As scrap-metal prices soar, more drivers are being forced to give up the increasingly unaffordable sport of building then gleefully crashing cars.
REEDSVILLE, W.Va. — Mud is flying, smoke and steam are rising, and the deafening roar of V-8 engines all but drowns out 5-year-old Shelby Scott’s screams.
“Get out of there! Get out of there!” she yells at the driver of a battered blue Ford LTD spray-painted with the words “Hillbilly Beer Wagon.”
But car No. 42 stalls in the center of the tire-ringed oval, stranded while 11 others smash into each other, over and over, until only one is moving.
Then Dave Cumpston climbs out of No. 29 through the space where the windshield should be and grabs a shiny trophy at the Valley District Fair Demolition Derby.
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It’s his first win in six years, he says, and maybe his last: After a decade of building then gleefully crashing cars, the 35-year-old mechanic from Buckhannon is giving up his increasingly unaffordable sport.
Soaring scrap-metal prices are making crashable cars more expensive and harder to find.
Owners who used to sell their worn-out wheels for $50 to $100 are turning to scrap dealers instead, getting nearly triple the price. That creates a double whammy for drivers like Cumpston, who must burn more gasoline in an ever-expanding search zone.
“This one sat in a hayfield for six years,” says Jamie Wolfe, of Kingwood, who drove No. 42.
He bought the body for $100 and considers himself lucky; many drivers are paying $300 to $400 per car.
Demolition derbies are a rite of summer in rural America: They’re a revenue generator for such volunteer organizations as the Reedsville Volunteer Fire Company. When participation drops, so does the size of the crowd — and the host’s profit margin.
The Midwest is taking an exceptionally hard hit this summer because of regional scrap-metal prices, though Tory Schutte, of the Demolition Derby Drivers Association, says participation is down nationwide.
Every state but Hawaii stages at least one derby a year. One is planned at the Evergreen Speedway in Monroe on Aug. 31 as part of the Evergreen State Fair.
Schutte is accustomed to seeing more than 100 cars at a single event. This year, there are only 40 to 50 as drivers of modest means are forced out.
Aggravating their situation is growing interest by a new breed of participants — doctors, lawyers and other professionals willing to spend more money on the vehicles. Some sink as much as $5,000 into a single engine.
“It’s really weeded out the little guy that’s building on a limited budget,” Schutte says. “He’s not going to be able to afford to stay in the sport.”
In many places, record prices for scrap metal have created a sellers’ market.
“I get calls every day asking about the price. If they don’t like mine, they go down the road and call the next guy,” says Dave Smith, of Elkins Iron & Metal Co., a scrap dealer in central West Virginia.
Former driver Hazel Curtis, mother of the screaming 5-year-old, worries what the soaring costs will do to a sport she describes as “road rage, controlled.”
“I just like to see the cars crashing … the excitement of who’s gonna stop and have to sit there and wait, whether they’re gonna get squished or not,” she says. “It’s just such a rush.”
There are rules, and referees to enforce them: No hitting a stalled car without giving it a chance to restart. No hits to the driver’s-side door.
Still, Schutte says derbies let people act out their primal urges.
“It’s kill or be killed, and you destroy him or he destroys you,” he says, “but nobody has to get hurt.”