Correction Appended: Sept. 10, 2009
There's at least one group of people who are happy Cash for Clunkers is over: demolition-derby drivers. Participants in these events, in which drivers smash into one another until there's only one engine left running, don't enjoy the sight of old cars going out of commission without making a pit stop at the county fairground. "Obama is an anti-demo-derby guy," says Tory Schutte, head of the Demolition Derby Drivers Association. "He's targeting the cars we've been using."
Also contributing to the shortage of derby-worthy cars: scrap-metal prices have doubled in the past two years, leading more owners to sell their cars to the junkyard instead of to a local kid with demo-derby dreams.
Eric Coss, a teenager in New York's Delaware County, managed to buy his first derby car, a little four-cylinder he decorated with markers, this summer for $150, plus $6 for parts. His reason for entering the county's Aug. 21 event was simple: "You can smash your car without getting in trouble."
Since the 1950s, demolition derbies have offered cheap catharsis that embodies America's can-do spirit. A crumpled car sputtering along in the mud on its rims can bring a crowd of thousands to their feet.
There are an estimated 3,500 derbies in the U.S. each year, and they tend to be the main attraction at county fairs, where attendance has hit record highs in many places this summer. "It's been a stellar year for fairs across the country," confirms Marla Calico, spokesperson for the International Association of Fairs & Expositions.
A lot of preparation goes into crashing these clunkers. Cars must be stripped of all extraneous parts, including windows; any reinforcements other than roll bars and contestants will get disqualified. Gas tanks must be moved to the backseat and covered with scrap metal. Doors must be welded or chained shut.
Drivers, who are not allowed to ram driver's-side doors, have to wear helmets. Many accessorize with neck braces.
There's a lot of pageantry on display at derbies, too. Veteran demolition driver Lynn Buchanan paid $600 for his mid-'70s Chevy wagon, which he decorated with an American-flag motif for the Delaware County derby. He puts a lot of hours into fixing up the clunkers he's getting ready to crash and sees the derby as a healthy way to blow off steam in stressful times. "I tell my wife, at least I'm not at the bar or doing drugs," he says. "You know where I am in the garage turning a wrench."
But the derby ultimately rewards fearlessness. Andrew Dougherty paid $100 for his Oldsmobile Delta 88, which got double-teamed by two Chrysler Imperials in the Delaware County finals. Yet he never gave up even after his trunk was flattened into the backseat and was awarded the coveted Best in Show trophy and $300. Later, in the parking lot, he leaned against what was left of the car and crowed, "It still starts!" He cranked it. Nothing. "Well, it did!"
The original version of this story misidentified two Chrysler Imperials as Chevy Imperials.