DEMO DERBY Paintings by Jane Dickson / Writing by Peter Nolan Smith

On a summer night in 1969 a high school friend Dave Quaan drove my older brother, next-door neighbor and me to Norwood Arena in his family’s station wagon. The Ford Country Squire hit its top speed of 115 on Route 128. We got off the highway at US 1 and drove south to a ball of light glowing under the stars.

Our destination was Norwood Arena, which featured weekly drag racing and demo derbies. Dave parked the Ford and we hurried into the stands. The first heat started at 7 pm. We bought four beers with a fake IDs and drank them fast. My brother spotted a boy from our hometown. Joe Tully had bullied me in 7th Grade. I couldn’t remember why he had stopped the beatings.

Three months ago he had been arrested for joy-riding and his father, a town cop figured a short stretch at Billerica Reformatory would teach his son a lesson, only Joe was not the learning kind.

“You want to start something?” asked my brother. Frunk always had my back.

“No, not now.”

The six-footer was hanging with six leather-jacketed thugs. My revenge could wait for better odds.

At 7pm the announcer called the first demo derby with a hoarse throat. Detroit clunkers rooster-tailed across the dirt. Fenders flew in the air and bumpers battered doors. The coup de grace was a rear-end smash into the radiator. After the third heat Joe came over and poked my chest.

“Long time no see.”

“Not long enough.”I swatted away his hand. “Do me a favor and leave me alone. I’m here for the races.”

“Sure, tough guy, but I bet I could win one of these.”

“In whose car?”

“My car.” He pointed past the fence to a 1969 Chevy Station Wagon. “It’s faster than any of those wrecks on the track.”

Joe was drunk and I said, “Then go for it, unless you’re a pussy.”

“Who you calling ‘pussy’?” His clenched fists turned white. “I’m no pussy.”

“Prove it.”

“I show you right now.”

“I’ll be watching.”

Joe staggered underneath the stands shouting to his greaser friends.

“Are you okay?” asked my brother.

“Yes, Joe said he was going to enter his car in the next heat.”

“Bullshit, more like he had to puke in the urinal. Maybe he’ll drowned in there.”

“I should only be so lucky.”

Right before the start of the next heat a late entry roared into the arena.

It was Joe’s station wagon.

“No way.” His friends hooted their support, as Joe circled the arena in the immaculate Chevy.

Everyone descended to the chicken wire fence separating the audience from the dirt track.

“This is wicked,” Frunk said, admiring my 7th Grade tormentor, and even I shouted for Joe.


Several seconds later the station wagon was t-boned on its first pass through the Figure 8 and the Chevy 360ed through a puddle of mud.

Norwood Arena liked a wet track.

Joe avoided another collision, but a 64 Ford Fairlane rammed the station wagon against the wall. The cracked radiator spewed steam and Joe crawled out of the wreck with a huge grin. It didn’t last long.

“I’m fucked.” Joe climbed into the stands.

“That you are.” I forgave him everything, as a tow truck hauled the totaled Chevy out of the arena.

“But it isn’t the first time I fucked up, so gimme a beer.”

The night Joe didn’t have to buy a single beer, but his glorious evening ended upon getting home. The station wagon belonged to his aunt and she was pressing charges.

His father paid for the damages and exiled his son to a military school in thick forests of northern Maine. Winter in Aroostock County was as cold as Siberia. There was no escape, although Joe tried seven times.

After graduation in June he enlisted in the army. His fare-well party was held at Norwood Arena on a warm night.

“I’m sorry,” Joe told me at the end of the night. His hair was crew cut short. He was ready for war.

“For what?”

“Bullying you was fucked up, but no worse than you tricking me into the arena with my aunt’s car.”

“Did you really think you could win?”

“Yeah, so I guess we’re even.”

“You be safe over there.” Forgiving was easy once you had your revenge.

The following week Joe was airlifted to Viet-Nam. After his second tour he married our hometown’s prettiest girl. Joe became a cop like his old man and they had four kids.

I see them on Christmas Eve and Joe tells the story about the demo derby. We all laugh too, except for his father, because some things are never funny to people who weren’t there.

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