The night before the Tournament of Destruction championship, Elmer Fandrey didn't plan to get loaded. There were windows to smash out in the '76 Thunderbird he'd be racing, a gas tank to puncture, and the monstrous black body of the car to be sprayed a bright Smurfy shade of blue. But there was no way he was going to miss Sammy Hagar at Loopfest--he'd been holding skybox tickets at the Tweeter Center for months. So he told the other drivers on team Havoc that he'd come by the garage after the show.
By the time the Red Rocker ripped into the set with "There's Only One Way to Rock," Fandrey had run into a friend who happened to be partying in the next box over with some people from Mancow Muller's radio crew. He started throwing back shots of tequila with Freak, and the next thing he knew he was waking up in the mobile home parked in his ex-wife's driveway. She let him in for a shower, and he hurried down to the garage to help with last-minute wrenching before the team towed its stripped-down Cadillacs, Chryslers, and Fords to the Route 66 Raceway in Joliet.
Nobody busted Fandrey's balls too hard. Around midnight team owner Rich Wilson and Dave Westenfeldt, Havoc's former owner, had argued about the engine in Tim Day's '68 Newport Custom, which wasn't running right. Wilson wanted to pull it and drop in a new one, but Westenfeldt groused that there wasn't enough time. Wilson wanted to make time. "Our whole frickin' season lands on this night," he said. When the debate heated up, Wilson lost his cool, said screw it, and tore off in his truck.
Westenfeldt stayed up working all night and had been dozing in an office chair for half an hour when Wilson returned around 7 AM. By the time Fandrey arrived, a couple hours later, the two still weren't talking much, except to bitch about each other.
In fact the only guy smiling that morning was Day, an ex-marine who'd been to the Persian Gulf and Somalia and who was the team's rookie driver--though he was running on fumes like everyone else. The Newport was still gurgling like a throat wound, but he was gunning it back and forth across the lot. "Winning ugly!" he kept shouting.
There was reason for the tension. In about 12 hours the Havoc drivers would begin crashing the first of 13 cars they'd been frantically preparing over the past month. Going into the race they led--but just barely--the other seven Illinois teams competing for the Team Demo Association's "national" title.
Invented in Chicago almost half a century ago and still practiced nowhere else, team demolition derby--commonly called "team demo" or "demo racing"--is different from regular demolition derby, where the goal is merely to be the last vehicle moving in a real-life round of bumper cars. In a demo race, two teams of four cars race on a mud track. The object is to escape destruction long enough to complete five laps. The car that looks most likely to make it at any given time is known as the lap runner. If your team is behind in laps, you want to destroy the lap runner. If your team is leading, you want to protect your lap runner.
Team demolition derby and the Tournament of Destruction are more or less synonymous--the tournament is the only regular team-demo event. Since 1999 a Tournament of Destruction has been held pretty much monthly throughout the summer at Route 66. A night's racing includes three elimination rounds, in which the eight teams race in pairs until two meet in the final round, where a $5,300 purse is on the line. Throughout the summer the teams accumulate points, and the one with the most at the end of the season is declared the national champion.
The upper echelons of the racing world generally think of derby drivers as thugs and lowbrows when they think of them at all. But there's classism among the rabble too. Team-demo drivers scorn regular demolition derbies as senseless and boring, requiring little skill and experience. For the past two years elements of the demo-racing community have been trying to escape the ghetto, prompted by the Team Demo Association, a sanctioning body started by Jan Gabriel, a longtime track announcer and race producer. Gabriel wants to make the sport truly national, with big sponsorships, multicity tours, and TV syndication.
The first demolition derbies in the Chicago area took place at the old 87th Street Speedway and at Blue Island's Raceway Park, where promoters saw them as a profitable forum for the resolution of the brand rivalries nursed by gearheads--Ford versus Chevy and so on. Eventually a team version developed, in which groups of three cars would race while smashing into one another. But it was Howard Tiedt, owner of Hinsdale's Santa Fe Speedway, who made team demo what it is today. Tiedt's father, Frederick, had opened Santa Fe Park, as it was called in 1896, featuring horse and bicycle and later motorcycle and car racing in addition to a dance hall, a bowling alley, and a beer garden. A tornado took out the grandstands in the late 1920s, eliminating motor sports from the park until 1953, when Howard constructed a half-mile clay track suitable for stock car, midget, and spectator racing. He conceived the Tournament of Destruction late in the same decade, and the speedway hosted it every summer until the early 90s. At its height, in the 70s and 80s, it was the track's biggest draw, packing the place eight nights a season.
The big, heavy-bodied sedans and station wagons that are still the mainstay of team demo were cheap and plentiful back then, though teams with junkyard connections had an easier time rounding them up. Before race day the cars were stripped of fans, electrical systems, air-conditioning and heating units--anything inessential that could drain power from the engine. Fenders were cut back so they wouldn't puncture or obstruct the tires if they got pushed in. Driver safety was a lesser concern, but lights and glass were shattered to eliminate shrapnel. Carpeting, which burned, and dashboards, which bruised, were pulled out. Gas tanks were punctured and drained and smaller and therefore less flammable boat tanks were installed where the backseats (also removed) used to be. The battery moved inside too, crated and tucked relatively out of harm's way on the passenger-side floor. Occasionally frames were reinforced with steel plating, and doors were filled with concrete or welded shut as protection against driver shots--hits on the driver-side door.
An intentional driver shot was a dastardly thing. Drivers who took them were sometimes penalized, though more often they got back what they gave. But the laws of physics sometimes made driver shots unavoidable. Doing damage, after all, was a priority. Front ends were raised for greater impact to an opponent's vitals; back ends were weighted down and lowered for better traction in the mud. Sometimes weak bumpers were welded to the front end, the seams smeared with mud to conceal the evidence.
Teams were--and still are--volatile entities, with high turnover from fights, rivalries, and, lately, suspensions. Yet many of the teams racing today can trace their twisted lineages back to the old days. In the early 80s, Dave Westenfeldt was driving spectator and figure-eight races at Santa Fe when he met Jeff Elder, a skilled stock-car racer who had put together a demo outfit called Sudden Impact. Elder's partner was a fellow stock-car racer and mechanic named Wally Hartung.
Elder invited Westenfeldt to Sudden Impact's garage to help strip cars in exchange for parts. It was a tight-knit group, says Westenfeldt, and not easily penetrated. He concentrated on his own racing, but something about team demo enthralled his dad, Henry, who would stop by the garage to see what his son was up to.
The team warmed to the likable older Westenfeldt, who had a knack for spotting heavy iron in junkyards and driveways and for diagnosing tricky mechanical problems. Soon he was wrenching steadily for Elder and Hartung, and eventually he became the team's crew chief.
Many drivers just wanted to crash, and drove their doomed cars onto the track as they found them, but others were devoted to building superior machines that could last at least one round or more. Sudden Impact raised the bar for demo-car preparation with their meticulous approach. If one of their machines crapped out during a race, they'd perform an autopsy on it. Hartung developed a detailed checklist for tracking everything that needed to be done to each car in order to avoid problems.
Other demo drivers laughed, he says. "They'd go, 'That's so gay! That's really stupid.' But when you went out there and smoked your competition, they started going, 'Well, maybe this ain't so gay.'"
Hartung, who has a few semesters of college under his belt, says that coming from stock-car racing he and Elder were a step or two above most of their competitors on the evolutionary staircase. "Most of these guys were a bunch of ne'er-do-wells and Neanderthals," he says. "I wasn't a big brute like a lot of these guys. I could have gotten my ass kicked on any given day. A lot of guys figured you had to be some big animal to drive demo cars. I figured once I got inside the car, we were on equal terms. 'I got a car. You got a car. Let's see you use it.' They stopped laughing when the championships started stacking on top of each other."
Sudden Impact followed two competitive early seasons with four straight championships, dominating the Tournament of Destruction in the 80s. In 1986, with the help of veteran driver Earl "Junior" Franklin, they went 23 and 1, destroying about 70 of their own cars in the process. The following year Motor Trend dubbed them "the best demolition derby team in the whole wide world," glossing over the fact that the only place they raced was Hinsdale.
The reign of Sudden Impact came to an end in 1989, after Elder went back to stock-car racing. Hartung--whose marriage was suffering from all the time he spent on the team--tried to walk away. It wasn't easy: the following season Franklin talked him into driving for the Mean Green Machine, another legendary team that won eight championships between 1972 and '99.
Meanwhile Henry Westenfeldt took over the team's slot in the Tournament of Destruction lineup. He had a decent first season and in subsequent years assembled teams under a variety of names, but none approached Sudden Impact's greatness. Dave began helping his dad with towing and mechanical work. Neither of the Westenfeldts ever raced demos himself, except for the time Dave was forced to sacrifice his figure-eight car when Henry was late getting to the track with the other vehicles.
Hartung quit the Mean Green Machine after one season, but the next year he and Henry tried, with miserable results, to resurrect Sudden Impact, and Hartung left before the season ended. After a year racing for Henry's Raw Deal team, he retired. Their old friend Elder had bigger problems: the previous year, he'd been sentenced to 40 years in jail for shooting his ex-girlfriend to death and wounding her fiance.
In '92 Dave Westenfeldt took part ownership of a team called Ram, which had a dismal season. In the midst of it he began prepping cars for the Quicksilver Destruction Company, and when the owner quit the next year, he inherited the team. Quicksilver wasn't very competitive either, and team demolition itself fell on hard times, since it was becoming difficult to find big-bodied old cars that the drivers liked. In those days a winning purse was around $2,100, barely enough to cover locating and modifying 12 beaters for a night's worth of racing, let alone gassing them up and throwing a couple bills to the drivers and crew. One year Henry raced two teams just to help keep the tournament alive.
The Santa Fe Speedway held its final Tournament of Destruction in 1994. The promoters had become increasingly wary of litigation, and attendance had dropped off. Team owners began selling off their cars and parts, and drivers drifted away. In 1995, the same year Howard Tiedt's heirs sold the Santa Fe Speedway to real estate developers, a depressed and down-and-out Earl Franklin put a gun to his head and shot himself.
Four years later Route 66's director of merchandise sales--Larry Decker, now the Team Demo Association's marketing director--persuaded his bosses to revive the tournament. No one had ever raced demos for the money, but the Westenfeldts, who'd held on to their inventory, liked what they were hearing from the new promoters. "We were kind of excited," says Dave. "This was a big-time track and we were thinking this was gonna go places. They were talking about us being on television and good payouts, and they always talked about how sponsors would come to us and start doling out money."
Dave re-formed the Quicksilver Destruction Company with a partner, and because the organizers were having trouble finding enough teams, his father put together Seek and Destroy and a "slushy team," Rude Awakening. Neither did much winning, though Henry mentored many young mechanics who are still active in the sport today, including Havoc driver Danny Ketelaar.
By the end of the 90s, big purses and TV coverage still hadn't materialized, but team demo persisted. Before the 2001 season, most of Henry's drivers left him. Dave handed sole ownership of Quicksilver over to his partner, and father and son decided to form a team of their own--Havoc.
Last month, nine days before the finals, Jan Gabriel swiveled behind the desk in his basement office in Lombard, watching a videotape of the Tournament of Destruction TV pilot he produced. His own recorded narration boomed over a sound track of crunching cars and guitars: "Now! Join us! As we take you into the world of twisted metal. Bent iron. And bone-jarring automotive mayhem! This! Is the Tournament! Of Destruction!...struction...struction..."
In conversation Gabriel has a habit of lapsing into the radio scriptspeak he's employed for some 40 years as a disc jockey, pitchman, and race announcer at Santa Fe and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
He's the guy who introduced "Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!" to the lexicon, reading ads for the U.S. 30 Drag Strip on WLS in the 60s. "Look at that!" he says, interrupting his own voice-over. "Head-ons! Sidewinders! Boom! Boom!" The video cuts to a shot of a frustrated driver hurling his helmet at a passing car. "Lot of emotions--lot of emotions!" Cut to a head shot of a smiling middle-aged woman. "We go to a hot blond--she's the starter. She's excellent!"
Gabriel, who'd returned to announcing the tournament when it was revived at Route 66, formed the Team Demo Association after the 2001 season, when the raceway was getting ready to dump demo racing altogether. The events had become highly attended hassles for the track: The pits were set up across the oval from the grandstands, but fans could buy pit passes, and restrictions on alcohol in the staging area were poorly enforced. It was a popular place to pick a fight--on a few occasions police were compelled to mace and arrest inebriated combatants, and ambulances could be seen leaving the track regularly. "A lot more of the women got in it than the guys," recalls Dave Westenfeldt.
Competition was hard to come by, with races consistently dominated by the Mean Green Machine or their rivals, the Locomotives. And drivers complained that track officials couldn't master the loosely defined regulations.
"It started getting out of hand," says Gabriel. "They had no rules. They had no discipline. They had no organization. They had no management. It was just too wild. The guys could build the cars any way they wanted. Some guys were just building better cars. There was no parity. No fairness."
Gabriel told the track he'd organize an official sanctioning body for team demolition, direct its promotion and management, and professionalize the events. With the increasing national popularity of more legitimate forms of car racing, he saw a future in team demo but figured that cleaning up the sport was necessary if he wanted to take it national and make a pile of money.
He'd done something similar before. In 1983 he produced a nationally syndicated motor-sports TV show called The Super Chargers, with celebrity guest hosts like Tony Danza, Leslie Nielsen, and Sally Struthers covering NASCAR and hot-rod races and the first televised monster-truck competition--a contest he says he invented.
The Super Chargers ran for 12 years and even got nominated for a couple of Emmys before the infomercial business outstripped the TV syndication business. It became too expensive for producers to get their programs on the air when they had to compete with motivational speakers and gadget peddlers willing to pay to flog their products. Gabriel was also shut out of the success of the monster-truck phenomenon. He says he made good money producing TV specials and videos for the monster-truck sanctioning body--the United States Hot Rod Association, now owned by Clear Channel. But since he never had a controlling stake in the venture, he was left behind when the owners sold out.
In team demo he saw a new opportunity to break into the big time. He coaxed Wally Hartung out of retirement as lead official and instituted rules for car construction that he hoped would level the playing field. He wooed team owners with promises of sponsorships and a points fund to be awarded to the top finishers at the end of a season--something he said would increase significantly if he could land a TV deal. To that end he produced and shopped around the pilot, with former Bears lineman Dan Hampton and super heavyweight boxing champ Butterbean calling the shots on a fictional Tournament of Destruction creatively cobbled together from old footage.
Every spectacle needs accessories, so T-shirts, buttons, and ball caps were silk-screened with flames and grim reapers and hawked on the TDA's Web site. Gabriel even taught himself PowerPoint and pasted up a comic book featuring the adventures of Johnny Kool, a heroic demo driver with more than a passing resemblance to the Fonz.
Gabriel wanted to develop personalities that would appeal to fans. In the pilot he featured the Locomotives, whose cars were painted a villainous black and whose leader was notoriously aggressive driver "Sneaky" Pete Ryan. In real life Ryan was engaged in an increasingly bitter and violent rivalry with a former friend, "Crazy" Art Scarbro of the Mean Green Machine.
"The crowd comes to root for a team," says Gabriel. "You rarely ever see them root for a driver. That's the drivers' fault. We've begged them to come up and sign autographs. We've begged them to do radio interviews with us. Hard to get them to do it. It's not something they're comfortable with."
Gabriel and Hartung also urged drivers to pay more attention to the appearance of their cars, a suggestion that more than a few resented. "If it goes to television you gotta make it look good a little bit," says Hartung. "I mean, what would you rather look at, some fat old bag or some really nice-looking chick with a nice ass?
"A lot of the old guys go, 'Ahh, that's all pussy shit. That's faggot crap. Let's just go out there and draw blood.' Look, the guys who don't get it--the old generation, or the small-minded? They will fall by the wayside. And guys that want to participate at the level we're expecting? They will be there."
"People come to see us because we go as fast as we possibly can and we hit each other," said Havoc owner Rich Wilson one buggy night in June. "They want to see blood and chaos and that's it. They don't care that I own the team. They don't care that my number's 44. They don't care that my name is Rich, Dave, Bill, or Chuck. They just want to see how fast I can go and hit the next guy."
Wilson leaned against the mutilated husk of a Cadillac in the lot behind Havoc's garage, a dingy, grimy, green cinder block hangar on Archer Avenue in Lockport. The garage has no heat or running water, and the corrugated tin roof can't seem to keep out the rain no matter how often Westenfeldt tries to patch it with plastic. Tim Day whaled on the front bumper of a GM wagon with a sledgehammer while Elmer Fandrey applied a blowtorch to the wheel wells of another wagon.
Wilson, who's 34 and drives a semi for a living, used to go to Santa Fe as a kid to watch his dad race the figure eight. He also took in plenty of team demolition. In his 20s he did maintenance at the track, and he began wrenching for the Locomotives during the 1991 season, racing for them once as a substitute. He switched to the Quicksilver Destruction Company when Dave Westenfeldt was looking for drivers.
During the tournament's four-year hiatus, Wilson got married and moved to Hinsdale. "That's all doctors and lawyers in million-dollar homes," he says. "And here's me with my wrecked cars in the driveway." When he started racing demos again, he says, his marriage fell apart. "She was like, "'That's it. I'll see you later.' She says it was something else, but it was pretty much this."
Now Wilson's five-year-old-son, Dustin, wants to be just like his old man. "He had one of them Little Tikes cars with the yellow roof. I'd be underneath my car there pulling out the trans and he'd be jacking up the little plastic car and going underneath there. The tools'd be flyin'. He'd be underneath going 'Shit! Shit!'"
At some point Wilson plans to stifle Dustin's enthusiasm. Every time he walks to the bathroom in the morning he remembers the night at Santa Fe when he took a head-on hit that crumpled the front end of his Chrysler and snapped his ankle on the brake pedal. And during this season's first race at Route 66 he was chasing Team Extreme's lap runner when the battery wire in his Cadillac shook loose, killing the engine. He unsnapped his safety belt to reach over and reattach it, restarted the car, and took off, forgetting to refasten the belt. Spotting his target, he spun around in the back straightaway. "I went to go hit him and I braced and looked down and was like, 'Oh shit!'" he says. "I hit him and--shoomp!--under the dash I went. My gut was under the steering wheel. I said, 'I ain't doin' that shit again.' Like two weeks after that I couldn't climb in and out of my work truck." Still, Wilson usually doesn't wear a seat belt at work or in his street car unless he's trying to set an example for Dustin.
Havoc didn't do well in their first season, but by 2002, the first year of the Team Demo Association, things looked a little more promising. The Mean Green Machine had split up after the previous summer, when they lost the championship to the Locomotives. That left Art Scarbro a free agent, and Wilson asked him to drive for Havoc, joining him, Danny Ketelaar, and another driver, Chris McGuire.
"Artie's like a god to us," says Wilson. "The people that know him, they want to crash cars like he does. He's always in the right place at the right time. You ain't gonna find nobody better than that guy. He'll make a car last the whole race and then some. Put him in a Chevette, he'd go out there against a Lincoln hearse. You can't explain him. I don't know how he does it. He'll go until there's nothing left of the car."
In the first round of 2002's second tournament Scarbro singlehandedly won the race against Damage Inc. "My car took a shit," recalls Wilson. "And Chris's car took a shit. Danny was starting to make laps, but his car was petering out. And Artie took all four of them yellow cars by himself."
The problem with being as good as "Crazy" Art Scarbro is that you become a target.
Havoc and the Locomotives faced off in the second event's semifinals. Dave Westenfeldt says his team could have upset the Locos. "The laps were dead even," he says. "And we had more cars going. We were real confident that it was gonna be a drag race and we were gonna win it. We were looking for the finals that night." But that's when the feud between Scarbro and head Loco Pete Ryan blew up.
"Pete Ryan gave Art Scarbro two vicious, malicious door shots," says Hartung, who was officiating. "I believe they were intentional. You hit somebody twice in the driver's door like that you're gonna get it back. Art came back around the track and while Pete was against the wall just slammed him in the doors and pinned him in the car."
Unfortunately for Havoc, Hartung didn't see it that way at the time. He immediately stopped the race and disqualified the team for the night. Ryan left the track in an ambulance, eventually racking up over $10,000 in hospital bills against the association's insurance policy. Supporters of the Locomotives were out for Scarbro's blood, and skirmishes began to break out in the pits. Others were outraged at Havoc's disqualification and tried to convince the Westenfeldts to stage a protest. They demurred, but before they realized what was happening, Ketelaar and two members of the Quicksilver team commandeered some Havoc cars and drove them onto the track, delaying the night's program further. Then on Sunday morning, as the teams returned to the track to tow away their junked cars, a driver on another team fired a bottle rocket in Scarbro's direction, burning the arm of a Havoc crewmember and earning himself an ass kicking.
After reviewing a videotape of the race, Hartung regretted the call against Havoc. They were "well on their way to the trophy round," he says. "I believe they would have won that race." Ryan--not Scarbro--should have been disqualified, but "we didn't see the initial door shots. There's a lot going on around the track. It's hard to keep track of everything. If I had to do it over again, it wouldn't have ended up the way it ended up."
Ryan's injuries weren't so severe that he couldn't race in the finals. The Locomotives still had the lead in points, despite incurring penalties for lining up late and installing illegal electric fuel pumps. Six out of the eight teams had been penalized that night for various infractions.
The incident led the TDA to ban fans from the pits and to administer random Breathalyzer tests to drivers. Gabriel even brought in a drug-sniffing dog for the third tournament of 2002, which went much more smoothly. Havoc made it to the finals to face the Locomotives again. Everyone expected a Ryan-Scarbro rematch, but when the flag dropped they stayed out of each other's way. The Locos outstrategized Havoc in that race, Westenfeldt admits, and won the night fair and square. But their disqualification in the second tournament had put them so far behind in points that their chances for a winning season were pretty much shot anyway.
The disqualification also added fuel to their suspicion that the TDA panders to its crowd--and a potential TV audience--by favoring the more popular teams. It isn't just bad calls, they say--they have a grudging respect for Hartung--but on the radio and in press releases Gabriel tends to talk up good-looking outfits like Road Rage and the association's newest team, the Junkyard Dogs, with their brilliant metallic-blue cars and star driver, funny-car vet "Nitro" John Lawson.
Westenfeldt takes it personally, and winning would be sweet revenge. "The worst thing you could do to Jan is win Saturday night," he told Tim Day before the 2003 finals.
"Win ugly, baby!" said Day. "Win ugly!"
Gabriel says this is nonsense and stresses that he's brought unprecedented equality to the competition. "Before the Locomotives fell apart this year, they were winners," he says. "And I was constantly accused of playing favorites for them when in fact it was just the opposite. I tried everything in my power to get these other guys up to a standard that those guys prevailed at."
The Havoc drivers know they're not fan favorites. They're made aware of it at the start of every tournament, during the "beauty contest," where each team rolls out a show car to compete for applause and a hundred bucks. Havoc's 1969 Mercury convertible is greeted with patient silence at best and scattered booing at worst. Day was dismayed when, early this season, the team lined up to race the Junkyard Dogs and he was flipped off by a mob of children screaming, "Havoc sucks!"
"I don't know why, but we're hated," says Wilson. "I think maybe it's because we're capable of doing good and we never did."
Hartung doesn't think anyone truly hates Havoc, but he agrees that they're not living up to their potential. "Listen," he says. "Havoc's always been what I call a scrapper team. They just get out there and they dig and they claw and they scratch....They keep trying and trying and I never count them out. There's an underdog that doesn't win and there's an underdog that can win. And they're that underdog that can win."
But he's puzzled by their attachment to winning ugly. "It's a strange angle," he says. "Maybe they need to be a little more flamboyant. Maybe they're too plain-Jane. And their name really isn't that spectacular. We've got Team Extreme, Road Rage, Orange Crush. Havoc? That's kind of lackluster when you think about it."
By the end of the 2002 season, Gabriel still hadn't sold his TV pilot. He thinks now that his concept was off. "Butterbean and Hampton were on too long," he says. "People want to see the crashes and the story line. I need more drivers who throw helmets and have fits. We're in the era of reality TV. I need to go into their homes, where their wives are saying, 'You bought two new tires for that demo car when that baby has no shoes.'"
Dave Westenfeldt, discouraged by years of unfulfilled promises, planned on quitting and leaving the team entirely to his father. Then late last August, a month after Havoc's disappointing last race, Henry was stripping cars with Rich Wilson when he suffered a major stroke, leaving him wheelchair-bound. He asked Dave to hold on to the team for one more year. "I asked my wife," he says. "'Honey, I know I promised to get out of it, but my dad was looking forward to this season.'"
Meanwhile, Gabriel was hiring lawyers to help with the changes he wanted to make. "Who would have believed nobody ever copyrighted 'Team Demolition Derby'? I did. 'Tournament of Destruction'? Nobody did. I did."
While one law firm was guarding his front door, another was watching his back. Increasingly concerned about his liability as owner of the Team Demo Association and his rising insurance premiums, Gabriel had an agreement drafted that all drivers and team owners would be required to sign if they wanted to race. Gabriel wanted TDA members and their families to waive their right to sue him, the track, or any other member if something went wrong.
In the past drivers had signed a pit release indemnifying the track, but Gabriel's document contained quite a bit more fine print. At a meeting in January, team owners revolted. They were disturbed that the agreement made them legally and financially responsible for litigation resulting from actions of their drivers. Some were bothered by a clause that appeared to give the TDA exclusive rights to photograph and videotape races. Westenfeldt says most of the owners believed the agreement gave Gabriel too much control and wanted more time to seek counsel.
Five team owners, including Westenfeldt, hired a lawyer who advised them not to sign. The suits traded letters as the owners and Gabriel played chicken. Most of the owners lost their nerve as Gabriel scrambled to find new teams. Westenfeldt, who'd been on the verge of quitting anyway, was one of the last holdouts. Though Gabriel won't discuss the details on the record, the standoff eventually resulted in the TDA suspending Pete Ryan.
"We truly run this like a good corporation," says Gabriel, who credits psychology classes he took at Northwestern in the 70s with giving him an edge over the drivers. "I have a law firm that takes care of 'problems.' You give us grief, you get a cease and desist letter. That means, 'Do what the letter tells you or you will end up in court.' A lot of these guys are from the old school, the old Santa Fe days, where it was wide-open. 'Bring your booze! Bring your drugs! Let's have a party and crash cars.' We have eliminated some of those people. Some of those people have eliminated themselves."
Westenfeldt says he appreciates some of the TDA's moves--like restricted pit access--but feels that Gabriel doesn't respect the owners and drivers. He's been offended by the tone taken in some of Gabriel's written communications: "Unfortunately there are individuals who do not have the mental grasp of the seriousness of this business," read a heavily italicized document sent to team owners by the TDA in 2002, after the Ryan-Scarbro incident. "There are new teams waiting to join us in our quest to become something other than just a bunch of morons in junk cars." Westenfeldt thought this was condescending. After all, if it weren't for the drivers, there'd be no TDA.
"We didn't have a say-so in the rules, in who can come into the association or anything like that," he says of the indemnity agreement. "The wording in there was real bad and you could tell it was a bad deal. I was ready to just give it up altogether and sell my stuff and let some other team take over."
But Havoc's drivers still wanted to race. "I just don't feel like sitting at home," says Wilson. "And what else am I gonna do? Go to work? The hell with work." So he took over as nominal team owner, even though Westenfeldt continued to seek out and buy cars, pay rent on the garage and the storage lot, and even quit his job as a mover in part to concentrate on the 2003 season.
Over the winter Havoc's lineup changed repeatedly. Wilson remained but Art Scarbro, fed up with the politics, retired and Fandrey took his spot. Danny Ketelaar also quit to spend more time with his family. Tim Day, then a mechanic, was promoted to driver after another recruit didn't work out. The team gets help towing, stripping, and wrenching from a few friends of Day's, but its most faithful crew members--and most passionate cheerleaders--are tow-truck driver Gordon Hartley and his wife, Sharon, who drives a school bus. Both spend as much time at the garage as some of the drivers, if not more.
The 2003 season did not begin auspiciously. In May, says Wilson, two nights before the first race, driver Chris McGuire was working in the garage alone and accidentally started a fire, torching the engine he was working on. When Wilson arrived at the garage and saw the damage, he called Ketelaar, who'd dropped by a few days earlier to offer his services as a backup driver. Wilson told him to get ready.
Nobody on the team told Westenfeldt about the fire--they hid the evidence and got back to work. Friday evening McGuire went to dinner with his wife and never returned to the garage. Early Saturday morning Westenfeldt discovered the ruined engine and blew a gasket. At about 8 AM McGuire phoned in, and Westenfeldt canned him. Ketelaar was in.
McGuire's still pissed. "I saved that garage from burning down," he says. "I should have been in that fucking car." He blames his teammates for not plugging the gas line. He was using a blowtorch under the car when the flame ignited the leaking fuel. His firing, he claims, was a conspiracy between Wilson and Westenfeldt, whom he didn't get along with.
Havoc outmatched Team Extreme in the first race that night, but Day made an embarrassing mistake in his driving debut. He knew something was wrong with his first-round Caddy when he fired it up in the pits and something ignited under the hood. When he hit the throttle the fire blew out, but when he restarted the engine on the line before the green flag dropped, he could tell it wasn't running right. He got in only half a lap before it died. He sat in the same spot for the entire race, and then when he got back to the pits he learned he'd forgotten to fill the gas tank.
Later he discovered it wasn't entirely his fault; the motor had also been pumping fuel out of the carburetor. He concluded that it was probably a good thing he forgot to gas up: "I should have been able to have a good fire going." That didn't stop his teammates from razzing him mercilessly.
In the second round Havoc was up against Road Rage, a new team with several veteran drivers from the Mean Green Machine--including Art Scarbro's brother Steven. Their red-and-white cars looked sharp, and Havoc team members suspected they were Gabriel's current darlings, not least because the TDA's radio ads on the Will County rock station always seemed to play them up.
When the green flag dropped, Fandrey took the lead. After one lap he spotted a Road Rage car lining up on him from across the infield. He slowed to avoid a hit, losing momentum, and then was caught by another car and pushed against the wall, where he hooked a bumper on the concrete. Behind him, Wilson and Ketelaar held Road Rage's lap runner against the wall, but he managed to get loose and take a small lead on Fandrey before Wilson nailed him again, this time stopping him for good. But Wilson had also lost his steering, and now every car on the track was disabled.
In such cases there's a ten-second countdown, and if no one moves again, the car that's come closest to five laps wins. Road Rage won the race by about 40 feet, then went on to beat the Locomotives, sans Pete Ryan, in the final, breaking the black team's two-year winning streak.
One particularly difficult year at Santa Fe, the Quicksilver Destruction Company grossed about $6,000 in purse money. Dave Westenfeldt figures he spent about $23,000 to win it. These days, a night's winning purse is $5,300--more than twice what it was at Santa Fe. But Wilson doesn't have any illusions about making a fortune. "If you're doing it for the money you should just stay home," he says. "This ain't a business. This is fun. Keeps you out of the old lady's hair. Keeps her out of your hair because she don't come down here. I think that was Dave's problem at first. He came in it with high expectations and when it didn't come through he got disgusted with it."
But Gabriel has high expectations, and often dangles his visions of the sport's future success in front of team owners. In order to bring it off he believes he needs to go national, at the least. And until he lands his TV deal, that means he needs to take what he calls "disco demo" on the road: "I gotta find somebody to build me 98 cars every time I go to a new venue."
Those are daunting logistics, but Gabriel looks to NASCAR as a model. NASCAR drivers began racing in relatively unadorned cars, but today corporate logo space is at a premium and many drivers are millionaires. This season the Team Demo Association secured its first major sponsorship, from Blue Island's A-Reliable auto parts, the largest junkyard in Illinois. Owner Frank Heckenast, a stock-car driver and former demo racer, also supports Orange Crush and is helping Gabriel build cars for the TDA's final spectacle of 2003--the World Finals, to be held this Saturday, August 16, at Route 66.
Though team demolition was always thought to be raced exclusively in Chicagoland, Gabriel has learned of variants in New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. He contacted Bevan Johnston, captain of New Zealand's Dirty Rottens, in the off-season, and the two plotted a "world championship" at Route 66. Members of Johnston's team and the Australian All Black Attackers (renamed the Outback Attack to avoid racial connotations, Gabriel says) are flying in, while two Canadian teams, the Full Mounties and the Border Patrol, are driving down from Toronto and Belleville, Ontario. They'll face off against the four TDA teams with the most points from the regular season. When they arrive, Gabriel will have cars waiting for them, prepped largely by members of Orange Crush and Damage Inc.
Most teams don't have a patron like Frank Heckenast, but each has one or two business names stenciled on its cars. Havoc gets parts at cost from the NAPA store in Bolingbrook, and whenever Wilson orders a pizza from Rosanna's, across the road from the garage, they throw in an extra pie for free.
The Junkyard Dogs park next to Havoc in the pits, and a quick survey of both groups' cars is a good measure of the resources each has at its disposal. The Dogs--put together under a name appropriated from the Santa Fe days by stock-car racer Mark Ziesmer--replaced the Quicksilver Destruction Company, a casualty of the uprising against Gabriel. The new team seems to have the flash and presence the association is looking for in a prime-time demo team. Their blue cars are decorated with stylish yellow and red lettering. They have their own Web site, and during the beauty contest, members of their large crew shoot T-shirts into the grandstands with a giant slingshot. Strictly in terms of crowd response, they are the anti-Havoc.
And they have "Nitro" John Lawson, the well-known funny-car racer, who brought powerful motors and sponsorship from his own auto-rebuilding business. "The fact that we have a 300-mile-an-hour NHRA funny-car guy racing with us is a big boost to us," says Gabriel. "It's amazing. It's amazing! We're getting people now who would have snubbed their nose at us a year ago. We see huge potential in our growth."
The Dogs filled out their lineup with demo veterans Charlie "Sarge" Turnbaugh and Ed "Booger" Walker. But despite all the flash and the heavy hitters, the Junkyard Dogs lost their very first race to Road Rage and spent the month in last place.
The Havoc drivers didn't give a rat's ass about racing Australians and Canadians. "That's more of a dog and pony show," said Tim Day in June, before the second tournament. To them, all that mattered was the season championships coming up in July. "I'd like to go out on a high note," said Westenfeldt.
That didn't look likely. If a team loses in the first round of a tournament it collects just two points for the night. If it loses in a semifinal round it gets four. If it loses in the final round, it gets six, while the winner goes out with ten, plus the trophies and the purse. The winner of the consolation round collects one point.
Having lost in the second round of the first tournament, Havoc was tied with Orange Crush for third place with four points, just behind the Locomotives with six. Road Rage had ten. Havoc needed to mount a major comeback.
But like the other teams who didn't make it to the last round of the previous tournament, they had an advantage--they hadn't used the late-round cars they'd prepared already, so they had more time to build fewer cars for June.
On race day Havoc caught another break. In the first race of the first round they were matched with Road Rage. If they were to upset the leaders and knock them out in the first round they could take the lead for the championship.
Tim Day was racing the same '84 Cadillac he'd forgotten to gas up in his first race. He'd had plenty of time to work on it since, and all the abuse he'd taken from his teammates guaranteed he wouldn't repeat the goof. When he pulled up to the line, the engine died--"but as soon as the flag dropped I stuck my foot in, and that thing came alive and couldn't be stopped," he says. Day leaped ahead and began ticking off laps.
Wilson and Ketelaar crashed into his pursuers, slowing them down long enough for Fandrey, bringing up the rear, to finish them off. Day took about half a dozen hits, including one that pushed his passenger side in about a foot. He lost both bumpers and his radiator before crossing the finish line, but he and his Caddy were redeemed. "I thought I'd get all the rookie bullshit out of the way first," he joked.
While Havoc easily beat Damage Inc. in the next race to make the night's finals, the Junkyard Dogs engineered their own upsets, first beating the second-place Locomotives, then Stranglehold. Everyone was surprised to see the two underdogs in the final round. "Nitro" John Lawson took an early lead, but Wilson and Day double-teamed him, and Fandrey won the race for Havoc.
It was the first time anyone on the team had ever won a Tournament of Destruction trophy. "It was definitely one of the top weekends of my life," said Day. Havoc now had a shot at the championship--but since they had only a two-point lead, so did six other teams.
Riding high from their big win, the Havoc drivers took it easy for a few weeks. Wilson wanted to go camping with his kids and girlfriend. Day caught up on laundry and bills. Ketelaar was building an addition on his house to make room for a new baby, and Fandrey headed up to the Wisconsin Dells, where he has property.
But Westenfeldt couldn't relax. The team had enjoyed a relatively light workload before the last tournament, but they'd trashed 12 cars getting to where they were. Now they had to prep at least that many more in five weeks. And they were the points leaders--everyone would be gunning for them. So they'd have to build them strong.
In recent years one of the biggest challenges to team owners has been locating the old monsters that the auto industry no longer produces. Wally Hartung says the oil crisis in the late 70s initiated a long, slow death for team demolition, though nobody realized it at the time. Manufacturers began downsizing their cars, using weaker frames, smaller engines, and lots of plastic parts and calibrating most of their hardware on the metric system.
At one time it was easy to spot the old crushers abandoned on roadsides, rusting in junkyards, or permanently parked in driveways. They could be had for as little as $50 and sometimes were free for the hauling. But as the supply dwindled, demo team owners were forced to search in wider and wider circles. And the prices rose, sometimes reaching $200 or $300, which adds up if you plan to destroy 12 cars a month every summer.
Hartung saw that something had to be done to extend the life of the sport. At the beginning of this season he decreed that the first round of each tournament be raced exclusively with post-1979 metric-designed cars. This was intended to increase parity among the teams--newer models are cheap and plentiful enough that even those with relatively few financial resources can find and prep them.
Drivers grumbled at first. Not only were the newer cars cheesy, they were harder to work with. Parts were standardized on the old models and it was nothing to pull an engine from one Ford and put it into another. But it was difficult to fit the powerful old big blocks into the newer models. "Every time you take a motor out of those 80s cars and put it in another car, you gotta make a new drive shaft," says Wilson.
"It takes twice as long to do a frickin' 80s car," agrees Day, though he considers working on them to be "research and development."
What teams saved in salvage prices they lost in man-hours. That was the problem Havoc faced two nights before the championship tournament in July, when each driver still had late-round cars to work on. They were on schedule until Danny Ketelaar's first-round '79 Cadillac Sedan DeVille decided not to start. It had been running beautifully when Westenfeldt and Day dropped it off at Ketelaar's dad's garage the previous Saturday. Fandrey, Day, Westenfeldt, Ketelaar, and Ketelaar's father hunkered over the engine until the early morning, then finally agreed it would be easier just to swap it with one from a '76 Caddy they had sitting in the lot. It wasn't an ideal solution, since that motor wasn't working perfectly either, but they were running out of time and options.
Day could have spent the Friday afternoon before the race fixing his troublesome '68 Newport and putting good shocks in his first-round Cadillac, but instead he pulled the engine out of the Sedan DeVille. Just as he was about to drop the '76 in, he realized that it wouldn't fit in the chassis because the frame style had changed. The oil pans would need to be replaced and a new drive shaft installed, which is what Wilson was doing around midnight when he and Westenfeldt tangled over the Newport.
Nonetheless, by three o'clock Saturday afternoon, Havoc had towed all their cars to the Route 66 pits, where they were spraying stencils on the roofs and doors and tying shut hoods and trunks with strips of seat belt.
With five hours to go before the first race, there was time to eyeball the competition. Art Scarbro was helping his brother park Road Rage's red-and-white cars. Last-place Team Extreme lined up next, pulling in an LTD they were rumored to have bought for an unheard-of $800. "That's $800 you're never gonna wreck," remarked Wilson. The Junkyard Dogs parked alongside Havoc, blue beside blue. The front end on Booger Walker's Cadillac seemed to be especially high--maybe too high, some grumbled, even dangerously high. Havoc separated the Dogs from Coal City's Stranglehold--a convenient arrangement since Booger Walker used to race and wrench for them until they had a falling-out. In the number-six spot, Orange Crush's Big Joe Snow had towed in a 1996 Chevy bubbletop Caprice Classic that most drivers were snickering at. Orange Crush couldn't afford to be too experimental, given their fifth-place position. Next to them were the Locomotives. Tim Pankow, known for putting huge sums of money into his cars, was showing off the gleaming $11,000 engine in his '69 Galaxie 500 wagon. No one worried about Damage Inc., at the end of the lineup--they were in seventh place.
Outside the parking lot began to fill with tailgaters. Wally Hartung drove around in a John Deere Gator assigning the teams their places in the first-round lineup. The Havoc guys were surprised to see they'd been paired with the Junkyard Dogs, since they'd already raced them twice this season. Wilson, Ketelaar, Fandrey, and Day walked over to the concrete wall and took a closer look at the track. Turn four was particularly soggy and Wilson made a note to "stay out of that fucker."
The plan was for Day and Fandrey to run laps early, and for Ketelaar and Wilson to take out John Lawson and the front tires of Booger Walker's Cadillac. But they knew plans almost always go awry once the mud starts flying. Besides, they'd smoked the Junkyard Dogs twice before. They were more worried about how Road Rage would do in their first race.
At six o'clock Gabriel called a drivers' meeting, next to the porta-potties and half a dozen lollygagging Joliet cops. Drivers ambled over and Hartung made his way to the front of the group, having changed into his bright red TDA official's shirt, with flames licking the black sleeves. "He's a flamer!" someone shouted, and the drivers burst out laughing. After a few words from Gabriel and Hartung, they drew lots to see who from each team would submit to the Breathalyzer test. Ketelaar was chosen for Havoc and passed. "Now I can drink," he said.
The teams packed the backseats of their beauty cars with wives and girlfriends and paraded past the grandstands. Children scrambled behind the chain-link fence as the Junkyard Dogs launched T-shirts into the crowd, winning the loudest applause. Then it was time to race.
When Stranglehold immediately upset Road Rage, Havoc seemed assured the championship--so long as they made it out of the first round. Things looked even better when the second-place Locomotives lost to Damage Inc.
At 8:45, as the sun set behind the grandstands, Havoc and the Junkyard Dogs started their engines. Day lined up first, in his Coupe DeVille, followed by Fandrey in his Chevy station wagon, Ketelaar in the Sedan DeVille, and finally Wilson in a Fleetwood.
The green flag dropped, and Day hit the Junkyard Dogs' lap runner in the driver's-side rear quarter, spinning him around in turn one. Then Day took a hit in his own rear quarter. The blow knocked out his shocks, which he hadn't had time to replace before the race. This plunged his back end into the mud.
Meanwhile Ketelaar's Caddy, the one that had just undergone the emergency engine transplant, jumped ahead of the pack, then unceremoniously took a shit.
Fandrey made it into the third turn before his motor seized, stalling him in "the best seat in the house."
Day managed to tail the Junkyard Dogs' leader for five laps, but neither he nor Wilson could catch him. "I just concentrated on stopping their lap runner," said Wilson. "But I knew we lost right off the bat."
Watching the season unravel from behind the wall, Sharon Hartley had tears in her eyes. Dave Westenfeldt stepped back and dropped to one knee, staring into the dirt. There was no way they could win the night, but they still led in points. If the right constellation of weak teams won and strong teams lost in the next few races, there was a small chance that Havoc could still take the championship.
As tractors towed the wrecked cars back to the pits, the drivers, Westenfeldt, and the crew began frantically readying their cars for the consolation round. If Havoc beat the other first-round losers and collected the extra point, they'd have a better chance of holding their lead or at least tying for first.
Wilson took his car out to the staging area first. But Day flooded the Newport's engine and had to transplant the gas tank into an LTD he'd bought off a friend for a case of beer. Fandrey was sulking behind the wheel of his wagon when he saw that Ketelaar was having trouble starting the "poof car"--so called because "somebody was gonna hit it and it was gonna go poof!" Fandrey realized Ketelaar might not make it, so he quickly cinched a gas tank into his Thunderbird and joined Wilson.
Day and Ketelaar had just minutes to go before the start of the race when they fired up their engines. Since only three cars from each team compete in the consolation round, Wilson bowed out, having detected trouble with his fuel pump.
When the four teams roared onto the track, Havoc's primary objective was to keep Road Rage from winning. Day took out their leader by slamming him behind the front tire. But before long many of the 12 cars on the mud had crapped out and it was hard to see which team had an advantage. Fandrey saw an opportunity to take some laps, but quickly realized his T-bird wouldn't make five before dying.
By then the Locomotives' Tim Pankow had the lead. Fandrey switched directions on the front straightaway and met him in turn four. "That guy's got a ridiculous amount of money sunk in them cars," said Fandrey. "Everybody out there that night was pretty much gunning just to see if they could take the front of that car off and waste a little bit of it." He hit Pankow twice before someone shredded the T-bird's back tire. Pankow crawled past him and went on to finish an agonizingly slow fifth lap.
With four previously lackluster teams in the semifinals, it was a night of upsets. There was some controversy after Booger Walker won in the semifinals for the Junkyard Dogs. A driver from Damage Inc. had met him in a brutal head-on hit that should have crumpled an ordinary car but had barely bent Walker's. The driver accused Walker of illegally reinforcing the frame on his Cadillac. Havoc was hoping TDA officials would penalize the Dogs, but they inspected Walker's car and gave it a pass. The Dogs went on to beat Stranglehold, taking the trophy, and when the points were added up they'd taken the championship away from Havoc by two.
"We didn't lose to the Junkyard Dogs," said Day. "They didn't outrace us. We lost to ourselves because of our mechanical failures."
Westenfeldt blamed himself for the most serious of those failures--the engine in Ketelaar's Sedan DeVille, which he later guessed had a bum carburetor. "I had that motor in my hands," he said.
Approaching the last race of Westenfeldt's career--the World Finals--Havoc were in the same enviable position as before their victorious night in June. They had plenty of time to fine-tune their cars, and Westenfeldt planned to buy a few already prepped from the Locomotives and Damage Inc., who'd been knocked out of the competition completely. Day had solved the problem with his Newport and was even planning on racing his LTD again. Ketelaar, whose wife was expecting, would be sitting out the "dog and pony show," to be replaced by Damage Inc.'s Pete Millette Jr., aka "Repeat Jr."
As for Wilson, he was already looking forward to next season, when he planned to take over the team completely. Fandrey, Day, and Ketelaar had promised to return, and Wilson had found a garage that he could rent for about $500 cheaper than the team's run-down Lockport cave. "If you don't make it a job, then it ain't bad," he said. "It ain't bad if you're just doing it to hang with people you know and have a good time and joke and talk about fuel gauges. When you make it too much like work--what fun is work? You do that shit all day."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez.