The Demolition Expert
When John Greenwood was 11 years old, his sister's boyfriend took him to a stock car race near their small hometown of Barnoldswick, England. The thunderous peal of racing engines, the pungent smell of petrol, and the uncompromising determination of the drivers utterly mesmerized the boy. “Right,” he thought with no uncertain resolve. “When I'm old enough, this is what I'll do.”
Three years later, Greenwood bought the shell of his first car. He found a sponsor who shared his fondness for excessively sized American cars to pay for the engine, and despite track regulations that required racers to be at least 16, Greenwood was driving at 15. Within a couple of years, he had moved from stock cars to Formula Twos, but he had become a tempting target for other racers: Greenwood was the young, mouthy punk rock kid with the big, flashy cars. His competitors would ride him down the wall and, being a young, mouthy punk rock kid (and a Scorpio to boot), he spoiled for revenge. He always got even, but he never finished a race. Soon enough, his sponsors pulled out, and his employment at a local auto-body shop certainly couldn't support such an expensive habit. Greenwood decided to start a punk rock band.
Ironically, the search for a completely deranged frontman only reintroduced Greenwood to racing, though in a largely more deranged capacity. “Banger races” are the British equivalent of demolition derbies, with some fundamental differences: Banger races are held on asphalt, rather than soaped-down dirt, so drivers can reach a ramming speed of 70 miles per hour; and in banger races, drivers are allowed to relocate their radiators, which allows for the heightened accuracy of front-end attacks, and the heightened thrill of seeing fear in the other driver's eyes. In banger races, cars crumple like tin cans and burst like balloons, and it's utterly unbelievable that anyone walks away.
Greenwood was recruited to join the Pinks, a notorious wrecking crew of nutters who happily settled grudges with rival teams after the match, with fists and skulls. While other drivers tried to intimidate the competition with jet-black cars and skull-and-crossbones insignia, the Pinks chose sugary cotton-candy hues.
“Pink is an effeminate color,” says Greenwood, sitting inside a quiet, mahogany-lined retirement hotel in the Tenderloin where he works and lives with his wife, Tuesday. “But these were quite bad, nasty guys. Of course, they were really just out for a laugh.”
Not everyone saw it that way. At one point, the Pinks were banned from every track in Britain, but Greenwood held some sway as an auto-sports journalist by then. When he left England, the Pinks were an older, wiser, but still formidable force.
“England is very tribal,” says Greenwood, watching a video screen on which one car is mercilessly pursued by a team and slammed into the retaining wall again and again until it crumples like an accordion. “The Pinks are from the north. When we went to tracks in the south, we were the obvious target. It wasn't always our fault. That's the way England is.”
Of course, England hasn't cornered the market on territorial rivalries. When Greenwood moved to the Bay Area, he built a car — a girly-pink Plymouth called the “Autobutcher” — which he took to Altamont. In the pit, he parked next to the 99s, a Modesto-based team with a vicious, long-standing grudge against another Modesto team aptly called Fat Boys Inc. The 99s lent Greenwood tools and introduced him to demolition derby producer Dutch Holland, a charismatic, retired racer who, with his wife, Fran, produces over 30 derbies a year, including several for TNN. Impressed with Holland's impartial judgment and substantial purses, Greenwood joined the fairgrounds circuit and, over the course of several more derbies, became quite friendly with the 99s, and quite wary of the Fat Boys. This did not go unnoticed by the Holt Brothers, the five corpulent auto-wrecker sibs who comprise FBI. When Greenwood lost his San Francisco garage and moved his car to the 99s' Modesto site, he gained a potent enemy.
“They used to go after me because I was the queer-looking loner from San Francisco with the British flags and pink car,” says Greenwood, “but now I have a certain association. The 99s remind me of my team back home. They're in it for a laugh. It's a rough, big-boy sport, but they don't take it too seriously. Just a crash and a giggle.”
Ninety-nine Joe Reyes won the national championship last September in Kansas, but FBI is completely unimpressed.
“He's got no bragging rights there,” says Mike Hogue, a member of the Holt Brothers' team who has a different last name but the same significant girth as the rest of FBI. “No other California drivers went. He didn't have any real competition. When he does, he can't deal with it. The 99s have only beat us once this year. We've beat them six times.”
In the pit, under the relentless, dusty Pleasanton heat, the racers make final adjustments to their cars: jumping on them, welding them, beating on the rear ends with sledgehammers (on impact, they will fold upward instead of dragging on the ground and trapping the wheels). The cars are dented, hollowed-out monstrosities, lovingly painted and lettered. (Says Greenwood, “It's a shame to let a car go without glory; they should look good for their final run.” The Fat Boys' cars are lettered by their wives and covered in children's hand prints, as well as caricatures of fat men pissing on the number 99.) The gas tanks have been removed and replaced with marine tanks positioned just behind the driver's seat; the batteries are bolted to the passenger seat floorboard; the glass is broken out; the fenders clipped; the doors and hoods chained shut. Nearly everyone wears dark gum protectors. They look hungry.
Two derby officials arrive in a cloud of dust, bellowing for the first drivers of the day. Several thousand fans stand and applaud the national anthem. Children squeal and choose cars. Holland counts down.
Greenwood, driving a pink wagon unearthed by Danno Towing and sponsored by All Car & Truck, is in the first heat. The 99s' demo-car guru, Peewee, lovingly calls it “Trailer Trash”; Greenwood calls it “Headhunter.” He wants a chunk of the Fat Boys. It won't be easy: Although double-teaming is a supposed no-no, FBI is operating with four No. 31 cars and four No. 55 cars, and the 99s seem awful friendly with the No. 60s. The cars line up on opposite sides of the small dirt arena, engines roaring. Holland gives the signal, and they scream toward each other in reverse, launching chunks of mud and belching smoke. The Fat Boys take out the “Englishman” within seconds, one solid rear-end rips off the header and dumps water into the distributor. He's disabled. After two motionless minutes, Greenwood is disqualified and must sit by impotently as FBI lunges at his friends in cars 99 and 60. They move in like feeding sharks, surrounding a crippled car and bashing it into the wall until the engine finally gives out. The sound of rending metal fills the air. Cars become tangles of scrap, piled on top of each other, wheels spinning madly. Amazingly, Tom Chivers in 99c is the last car moving on the track, but Doug Holt Jr. is breathing down his neck.
The second heat is more violent than the first. Clutches fail immediately; axles bend and snap; tires explode and fall off; scalding radiator water gushes onto the track; rear ends crinkle upward, blinding the drivers. Mike Hogue and Brandon Holt place first and second. In the third heat, 99 Ralph Garcia takes first and Brian Holt takes second. During the consolation round, Greenwood limps back onto the track with a blown tire. FBI's 55 lunges for him, smashing him into the wall nose-first. He loses reverse and is stuck and devastated.
By the main event, seven Holt Brothers vehicles have qualified, and three from the 99 team. There are 14 cars in all. Too many cars and too little space on the field. The 99s and FBI make small change of the other drivers. There are engine fires; steering wheels fly out windows; smoke and steam rise from knots of steel that were once motors. The vehicles are unrecognizable, and yet, with no rear end and only two operating wheels, they drag themselves forward in a desperate attempt to inflict a final, parting blow.
It's like a measureless Monty Python skit.
In the end, Mike Hogue places first, with teammates Chris Kumps and Doug Holt Jr. placing second and third. Joe Reyes comes in fourth. During the next day's competition, FBI obliterates Ralph Garcia's car, a lesson about coming in first in a heat, no doubt. Reyes complains about double-teaming. Doug Holt Jr. places first, and wins overall for the weekend — a chip off the old block.
“We're family,” says Hogue. “We know how to drive together.”
“I just wanted a good crash,” says Greenwood, feeling robbed.
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By Silke Tudor