Past the pasture-turned parking lot, just inside the gated entrance, a crowd of 20 spectators mills near a concession stand that sells funnel cakes and beer in half-gallon plastic jugs.
Behind the wooden bleachers, three boys wrestle one another for a place in line for the portable toilet. In the pit, a bandana–clad driver with a long blond goatee hunches under the hood of his car, making last-minute adjustments to a vehicle that soon could be headed to the scrap heap.
The cheering and the jeering start before the national anthem is over.
“Why don’t you learn to sing?” someone in the crowd yells.
“Why don’t you shut up? That’s my baby singing,” someone else replies. On this Saturday night in Sturgeon, it’s survival of the fittest. The demolition derby is about to begin.
Over the course of several hours, a body-crunching process of elimination determines which among the dozens of cars will be the sole survivor.
Between heats, front-end loaders clear the field of scrap metal while country songs, such as “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” and “What the World Needs Is a Few More Rednecks,” play over the crackling loudspeaker.
Midway through the final round, a fight in the stands temporarily stops the action. Paramedics and firefighters tend to the injured while stories and pantomimes of what happened ripple through the crowd.
Back on the track, one by one, drivers throw down their checkered flags, signaling their cars are too battered to run. When a car can’t run, a driver’s night is done.
It’s long past sunset when Frank Johns Jr. is the only driver still running. He climbs out through the car window, Dukes of Hazzard style, tears off his shirt and helmet and pumps his fists in the air, victorious.
It’s $700 of first-place cash in his pocket, another plaque on his wall, but most important, the pride in chalking up another win in a career that spans 30 years.
At the far end of the bleachers, in a mash of lawn chairs, blankets and strollers, about a dozen of Johns’ relatives are gathered where they watched the event.
Ruth Johns, Frank Jr.’s wife, also had a son, a brother-in-law and five nephews driving in the derby.
She points out that even for winners, derby driving is a losing game. Winning purses typically are $400 to $800. She estimates her husband spends about $2, 000 before each race getting his car ready.
“The most Frank Jr. ever won is $1,800, so even winning you don’t break even,” she says.
Despite the cost, Ruth sees Frank’s hobby as a worthwhile investment.
“He could be doing worse things, like drinking and doing drugs, but he don’t do neither,” Ruth says. “I’d rather have him wrecking a car.”