Even in relatively tight-knit bush communities, there are few things that everyone can agree upon. But in the southeast Alaska town of Gustavus (population 500), residents have recently discovered an event that seemingly everyone can rally around—a demolition derby.

The somewhat accidental brainchild of long-time resident Bruce McDonough, the Gustavus Demolition Derby came about in 2019 when McDonough found himself with an old beater vehicle that only ran intermittently. It wasn’t reliable enough to sell, and not even nice enough to give away. McDonough realized that there were actually quite a few vehicles around town like that—because the expense of ferrying a vehicle out of Gustavus was high enough that once an older vehicle made it that far, it would probably never leave. Combine the surplus of vehicles on their last legs with a lot of residents who liked to turn wrenches, and you ended up with “the Derby,” as it is now affectionately referred to after the second annual event took place in September 2020, complete with pandemic precautions.

Having never been to a derby before, I had to ask Bruce…why? Why would anyone want to purposefully crash their car? He laughed, “People just wanna smash, man. It’s just fun.” Then he added, “Plus, it’s a competition at a lot of different levels.”

True enough on the competition part. These are not just old cars that got pulled out of retirement to gain glory in the Derby. While they might be beaters, they’re also heavily modified, in accordance with an exhaustive list of rules drafted by McDonough. 

The tailgate of a vehicle painted with flower designs and letters
Drivers get creative with more than just vehicle modifications. Names and paint jobs are important too. Photo by Sean Neilson.

Derby-Ready Rides

For the sake of safety and fairness, certain modifications must be made to all vehicles. These include the removal of flammable panels, relocation of the fuel tank, reinforcement of the driver’s compartment, removal of all glass including lights, welding shut of doors, and a 12-inch hole in the hood to allow access for fire extinguishers. The final stipulation reads: “If you have questions, please reach out before building. Just because something is not specifically mentioned here doesn’t mean it’s allowed.” Which is a clever way of acknowledging the creativity and competitiveness abundant among the drivers. Each driver spends many hours in the shop working on their vehicle. And while it is competitive, it’s also collaborative. Many of the cars come out of the same shop, where contestants share everything from tools and parts to tips and techniques.

Creativity is a big part of the whole process. Each vehicle gets an affectionate name. Some of the entries from last year included: “The Green Lichen,” “Hammerhead,” “Beast,” “Tiny Terror,” and “Dirty Diaper.” And while these rigs get stripped of their interiors and glass as part of the safety protocols, they all get fresh paint and colorful detail work on the exterior. These things are not just smashing machines, they are works of art in a uniquely Alaskan derby-kind-of-way.

Derby Central

A crowd of people watch on a sunny day from behind logs
Derby spectators enjoy the show from behind the barricade. Photo by Sean Neilson.

Another truly Alaskan aspect of the Derby is the venue. On Derby Day, Gustavian Bob Chase’s property is transformed from an auto repair shop and lumber mill into Derby Central. Spectators walk down a dirt path, past the sawmill, and around quite a number of pieces of heavy equipment. Beyond that is the derby course—a dirt pit about half the size of a football field, circumscribed with a six-foot-tall earthen berm. In one corner, there’s an announcer’s platform for the emcee and musician, who last year performed a Jimi Hendrix-inspired version of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Around the berm, seated in lawn chairs and on top of derelict vehicles, are just about every Gustavus resident—many of whom are rooting for vehicles that they used to drive to work.

Time to Smash

One resident went from being a spectator to a participant. Natalie Vaz drove in the Derby without actually preparing a vehicle. She showed up knowing that her friend was auctioning off a vehicle that could be driven in the Derby. After winning the auction for $100, she got the rig, some brief strategic advice, and was ready to go. Her spontaneity pumped up the crowd. She might have won but she got stuck for a moment when she couldn’t find reverse (because of a modification, there was no indicator of which gear she was in). That pause gave her opponent enough time to slam into her and flatten her tire. But she did win runner-up.

Vaz hopes to enter next year’s Derby, which is on pace to be the biggest one yet, with interest spreading to the neighboring communities of Hoonah and Juneau. Vaz, like so many of the contestants and spectators that I spoke with, intends to go back because she appreciates the broad spectrum of community members who attend. “My favorite thing about the Derby is how it brings the whole town together,” she said. “Different people from all walks of life—whether they are charter fishermen, or artists, or plumbers, or park workers, it brings everybody together.” In times when so many things are tending to pull us apart, the Gustavus Demolition Derby is smashing them together—quite literally.


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