COLUMBIA — Bill McDermith has 50 years of experience, a 500-pound steel ball and a dream.
Nelson Woods, Robert Dore and Brandon Craig have cars they are ready to crash.
Welcome to car soccer, the latest addition to Grandstand Attractions’ lineup of smash 'em up activities designed to thrill visitors to the Boone County Fair on Sunday.
The object of the game is the same as regular soccer: score more goals than the other team in the allotted time. There are even similar rules: Players still can’t touch the ball with their hands, rough play is penalized, and there are even referees on the sidelines holding flags. Just give each player a vehicle, replace the normal roughly one-pound synthetic leather ball with a 500-pound steel version, reduce the size of the teams from 11 to three, and, voila — car soccer.
In 1951, Bill McDermith participated in his first demolition derby. Ten years later, officials in Sedalia refused to let him and his brother-in-law participate because, as McDermith puts it, “They thought we were pros.”
So instead, McDermith was an official, flagging down cars that were too beat up to continue running.
After his first wife died of cancer, McDermith was flagging a derby in Abilene, Kan., in 1983, when a female driver was upset with the way he was doing his job.
“She got out and cussed me up and down,” McDermith said. “Told me I didn’t know how to use a stopwatch.”
Three years later, that woman became Regina McDermith, and the two have been married since.
Since 1991, they have run Grandstand Attractions as a team, putting on demolition derbies at county fairs around the Midwest and entertaining the masses with their flavor of mud-slinging, dirt-track, steel-bending fun.
All, however, is not well in the demolition derby business. The company needed a new way to draw the crowds back to the fairgrounds.
McDermith discovered car soccer on YouTube.
“I saw some guys over in the U.K. and Japan doing it,” McDermith said. “So I figured we’d try it here.”
The music of Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley over the track’s public address system is punctuated by the pounding of Woods’ hammer, the bending steel under Dore’s crowbar and the thumping of their friend Aaron Baldonato’s leather boot as he tries to kick out the windshield of Woods’ car.
Three hours before the competition begins, Woods and his teammates have a lot of work to do on their cars to pass inspection. Steel plates must be moved, batteries must be fastened to the floor and the windshield must be removed before the 1987 Toyota Tercel touches the track.
The vehicle is not good looking. Spray-painted yellow and black around the body, Woods has replaced the normal hood with one sporting a confederate flag. “16w,” the car’s number, as well as a variety of different names of teammates and friends, are painted white on the sides and back. The interior has been completely gutted, the scraps burned in a pile two-and-a-half months ago when Woods acquired the car from a man known only as “Mike from Hallsville.”
The gas tank is bolted in where the backseat would be, and the battery sits on the floor in front of the passenger seat. A crushed pack of Marlboro Reds is next to the driver’s seat. Soon after work begins, someone finds an artifact from the car’s past. A Missouri ID card, expired in 1996, which belonged to Christopher Garvin of St. Louis. When asked if anyone knew Garvin, the team collectively shrugs shoulders.
“No idea,” Woods says.
Minutes later, the team has its first mishap of the afternoon. While trying to remove the windshield, Baldonato gashes his right pinkie finger. He was trying to push the glass panel out but instead hit his finger on the steel frame where the top of the windshield meets the car.
“Dude, you might need stitches,” Craig says.
“All I need is some Superglue,” Baldonato says as he wraps the hand in a rag and fastens it with some yellow duct tape. “At least I match the cars,” he adds, laughing.
Twenty minutes later, Woods is using a blowtorch when the hose connected to the oxygen tank blows open. With too much oxygen, the blowtorch becomes a flamethrower. Frantic yelling. Eventually two teammates get the hose turned off. Crisis averted.
These cars aren’t designed to play soccer. The men came to the fairgrounds for the regular demolition derby, the crowd-pleasing, smoke-billowing, cringe-worthy destruction that has been a staple of county fairs for years.
Car soccer, meanwhile, is still an experiment. The men were skeptical. Despite the fact that they stood to earn $200 each for a win, they still had to be coaxed by organizers into trying it out.
They were concerned about colliding with the 500-pound ball. Would it damage their vehicles for the derby? They had never played the game before, did they really have a chance to win the prize money? These were demolition derby men.
As it turned out, the crowd was there for the demolition derby too.
Bill McDermith thinks car soccer can save his business. He thinks it can do even more than that, in fact.
“I want this to get big enough where there are enough fairs that we can take the winner from each and have a state championship,” he said.
That will take time. In Columbia, he had to work hard to convince even six cars to participate.
The sport, according to McDermith, uses the same skills as a demolition derby.
“The most important thing in both events is the same,” he said. “Look in front before you back up, because you never know who’s waiting to slam you once you’re up against another car.”
Excessive contact is discouraged in car soccer, though, because McDermith wants the competitors to be able to reuse the cars later in the "main" event. Any sort of real ramming is punishable by two minutes in the penalty box.
The biggest problem he’s had with the game is the ball. For the sport to run smoothly, it requires a ball light enough to bounce around, but durable enough to withstand being knocked around by six vehicles.
Sunday was the fifth attempt at car soccer. It was McDermith’s fifth ball.
Woods is a maniac. At least that’s what his friends say.
“You don't want to get in the car with him,” teammate and cousin Robert Dore says. “He goes crazy out there.”
Woods, Dore and Craig all work together at R & K Mobile Home Transporting Co. in Columbia. Woods is the oldest at 30, but Dore, at 24, is the de facto leader because he finances the team’s operation.
Yet there seems to be no real ranks within this crew, no alliances have formed. Whether it’s the fact that Dore bankrolls their entry fees, Woods dates Craig’s mother, or the fact that they live in the same neighborhood, work, and hang out together virtually all the time, there seems to be no turmoil at all.
“We’re all pretty much family,” Dore says. “Just a bunch of hillbillies is what we are, out here to have a good time.”
It doesn’t take long to see, though, why Woods is known as the maniac of the group. Within 20 seconds of “kickoff,” he gets in a head-on collision with an opposing player. It rattles his head forward, bouncing his helmet off the very same frame that Baldonato gashed his finger on earlier.
This full-size, bumper-car soccer is exhilarating. Even when the ball is trapped between four vehicles, the fact that at any moment a car could be sent spinning by another is an adrenaline rush.
Sunday’s game, though, is marred by the new ball. The original ball was made of rubber and weighed 12 pounds. This one is fashioned of steel, and weighs 500 pounds. It sinks in the mud and proves too big for the cars to effectively roll.
However, about 10 minutes into the game, opposing player Chris Dixson emerges from a scrum with the ball and a chance to score. Dore and Craig have both blown tires and are virtually useless. Woods is the only defensive chance. He hits the gas hard, surging toward the ball, but as he gets there, is forced to hit the brakes because a head-on collision with the ball at 30 mph would leave the front end of his car looking something like a Ruffles potato chip.
That hesitation allows Dixson to score.
But the crowd seems apathetic.
That fact wasn't lost on McDermith. After the goal, he asks the crowd over the public address system whether they want the players to finish the game, or whether they want to move on to the traditional smash-up they are used to.
Overwhelming cheers rise from the roughly 1,000 in attendance. End the game. McDermith's experiment is over for the night.
And Woods, Craig and Dore are ready for the main event.