One of the memories I remember most about my teenage years was the summer of ’85 and going to see my brother Mike run in the demolition derbies on warm summer nights. Little did I know it then, but watching my hero out there in the ring would have a lasting impression on me.
Mike ran away to Arizona when he was just 17. With only $20 to his name, he managed to make it all the way across the United States by hitching rides off strangers and walking many miles when no one would pick him up. This decision to stop in Phoenix proved to be life changing for him. A man took him under his wing and taught him the art of working on cars. He lived out west long enough to learn the trade and find a wife and after some years finally brought his talents back to Kentucky where he opened a transmission shop on Low Gap Road. It was here, in the summer of ’85, where he learned about the first annual Demolition Derby at the Campbell County Fairgrounds. He decided to give it a go.
Turns out he was sorta great at smashing up cars…and he loved it. While others would number their cars with stoic numerals such as “69” or “007” or “1”, Mike didn’t fall into such egotistical traps. He always named his cars “Almost ½”. He would paint the doors white and the rest of the car a medium shade of royal blue with the “almost ½” hand painted in his own boyish, barely legible handwriting. Along the back of the trunk, he proudly wrote in that same hand, “Carson’s Transmissions”.
When he first started the derbies, his game plan was to stay out of the main action as much as possible…only making hits when he absolutely had to. Sometimes this ploy would frustrate other drivers and they would gang up on him.
Not one to miss out on the action, his strategy quickly changed. He started plowing and plunging and hitting and smashing. He would have good nights and not so good nights. But every time I went back in the pit to see him, he was always wearing dirt, sweat, grease, oil and a big fat grin. He was in his element. He was in heaven.
I loved watching him in the ring…the drama of watching his car stall and anxiously waiting for his head to pop up from under the dashboard as he frantically tried this or that to restart the engine, oftentimes with just seconds left before the referee was ready drop his flag and rip the stick from Mike’s window, signaling to the other drivers that this car was dead and out of the game.
At one particular derby his car stalled and his head, as usual, disappeared under the dash. When he tried to start it nothing happened. Back down he went again as we held our breath. Again nothing. He knew what was wrong. We knew that he knew…for he knows everything about cars. Why wasn’t it working? Finally he went through the front window, reached his hand inside the engine and less than 2 seconds later he was back in the car and with one try the engine was roaring again…and so was the crowd!
Mike was always a crowd pleaser when it came to the derbies. The more he entered, the more he learned the game of crashing and bashing. For instance, he started buying station wagons to enter. With their large back ends, he was able utilize the backing up crashing power. And he used this strategy relentlessly. At the end of the night the station wagon was usually condensed to the size of a Pinto and was shaped like a scorpion with its tail perched in the air ready to attack. Sometimes he couldn’t even see out the back window and would just floor it, hoping to hit something.
It was these particular nights our dad was most proud of him. I can still see him leaning over the fence yelling, “Get ‘em again, Mike! Crash him! Crash him!” After the heat, Dad would proudly drive out and pull Mike’s car back to the pit where he would attempt to assist Mike with fixing the car for the final heat.
But there was one particular derby that I will always remember. If I ever would have had grand children, this…THIS…would be a story I would tell again and again. I’m already anxiously awaiting Mike’s grandkids to reach an age to appreciate this miraculous tale of their grandfather.
It was the granddaddy of all derbies. THE championship derby at Riverfront Coliseum. And my brother had won enough derbies around the area to qualify for this opportunity to show his expert derby driving skills to the whole world….or at least to Cable TV and a live audience of tens of thousands of fans from all over the states of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. It was the largest derby he had ever been in. It boasted eight heats with at least 20 cars in each. The eighth and final heat would take the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place cars from the first seven heats and bring them into the ring once again for a grand finale. It was to be a spectacular event!
My dad and I were able to talk to him in the pit before we took our seats. He told us his game plan was to simply make it to the 3rd car standing and pull his stick off the window to signal he was out. No need to bang up his car any more than he needed to. Save it for the final heat.
My brother had shopped and shopped and found the perfect station wagon, his trusty car of choice. He painted the fenders, hood, trunk and roof his standard medium royal blue and the doors white with “almost ½” painted in his scrappy handwriting on the doors AND this time he actually painted it ON THE ROOF! He knew his fans would be high up in the stands and made the numbers extra big so we could tell who he was. He even fancied up his car by cutting a hole in the hood and had pipes sticking out. It was loud and as he drove out into the center ring for the first heat the crowd jumped up and roared with cheers that rattled the roof of the coliseum. I could see him waving his fist out the window cheering them on as the music roared across the speakers. He. Loved. This. Game.
And when the whistle blew he backed out of his spot full force and immediately threw it into drive and slipped on around the mess of cars to the outside. He circled around, gaining speed in the muddy mess and did something he rarely ever did…he smashed into a car engine first…and just as quickly he threw the car into reverse and with full force went backwards straight into a car which was frantically trying to get out of the way of the Mike Machine…too late. Mike hit the car so hard it rammed up and over the railroad tie, which served as a boundary. That poor car was out of the game. I could see the driver shaking his fist and yelling what I can only imagine were obscenities as Mike drove by giving him the bird. The dude ripped his stick off his window and waited inside his car for the show to end. But it was far from over. Mike was all over the ring as cars were scampering to get out of his way. The crowds roared louder and cheered each time he hit another car. He. Was. On. Fire! And, surprisingly enough, he actually made it to the third from last car standing…which was all he needed to qualify for the final heat. So he promptly shut his car off and ripped the stick off the window. He had done what he set out to do. The heat lasted just a few minutes more until the last man was standing.
Mike’s car was smashed to shreds…every fender was dragging the ground, some only holding on by a single bolt. Both bumpers had long ago fallen off and were scattered around the ring in pieces. He had two flat tires. And he not only had his trademark scorpion tail waving at the crowd…this time, his hood was waving too…leaving him unable to see out the front of the car. He had spent his last three minutes driving with his head sticking out the driver’s side window. As the cars were leaving the announcer said over the speakers, “And there goes Mike Carson in Almost ½!! How on earth is he going to get that thing back together for the final heat? I can’t wait to see what he comes up with!!”
We waited in the stands for Mike to come out of the pit during the other heats. It was customary for him to come up and see us between his heat and the final heat. But no Mike appeared. We were worried. We knew he must have been very busy trying to get his car put back together again. The engine sputtered a little when he left the ring…but the thing was smashed up like a Pepsi can. We knew he could fix the engine…but the desperately needed bodywork? He didn’t have the tools or manpower to do that.
Hours went by and the heats went on. None of them as exciting as the first heat and certainly no one was able to bring the crowds to their feet like the Almost ½ machine did. His car did not have the fancy custom paint jobs like the other cars. It did not have the sponsored logos or the custom lettering. The car was a duckling in a sea of more eloquent swans. And maybe this is why the crowd related to him so well. He was the underdog.
The fans anxiously awaited the final heat. As the cars were announced and drove into the ring, the cheers gave way. I could hear him back in the pit…in the darkness, out of site. I could hear his homemade pipes thundering. He was giving it gas…it didn’t sound right…something was not right with the engine and he had to keep revving it up. But I heard him and I knew that soon he would be coming out. And the announcer roared, “Ladies and Gentlemen, I can’t believe this, but he’s done it! He’s got the car running! Let’s have it for Mike Carson from Alexandria, Kentucky!!!” And around the bend he came thundering out into the arena. The bumpers had been reattached with wire coat hangers. The hood was gone and the side fenders were nowhere to be seen. The car was simply the frame with the roof and doors in addition to the bumpers attached to either end. The crowd went WILD!! Not a person was sitting in the building. Not a dry eye in our family. There he was. My brother. The smartest person I knew. In all his glory. I had never been so proud of anyone before.
As the flags went down and the heat started, Mike took it a bit slower this time around. It wasn’t long before he stalled. His head disappeared under the dashboard as he frantically threw wires and bolts and screws over his shoulder. With just three seconds left, he got it running again…only to stall it 30 seconds later. Under the dash he went again…and again with only a few seconds left the car came to life once more. By this time the engine had started to smoke and the poor car sounded as if it was giving everything it had for it’s driver. As soon as Mike heard the engine sputter he quickly went into action and smacked a car hard and bounced it out of bounds. He threw it into forward and went after one of the big old muscle cars fast and hard. He hit it so hard that he stalled yet again and then smoke started to really pour out of the engine. Down he went under the dashboard…he was not giving up. All of a sudden flames appeared out of nowhere. The whistles started blowing and the firemen came running out. Mike, realizing what was happening, came full force out of the car with his feet out the window first…and it was only then that the crowd realized what his family already knew….Mike’s left leg was in a full cast from his ankle to his hip. He had broken his thigh just a week before.
AND THE CROWD WENT WILD!!!!!
The cheers were enormous. Louder than any football game I had ever been to. Louder than any rock concert. Everyone was back on their feet and my brother was circling the ring shaking his fist in the air, encouraging his fans to make more noise. And they answered with even louder cheers.
This was HIS moment. HIS time.
And I was so glad to be there to witness it.
He didn’t officially win the derby that evening. Not even close. I believe he came in 20th out of 21 cars.
But none of that mattered.
Even after all these years I often think about that moment and that summer of the demolition derbies. I think about how it wasn’t until he went into the ring without any inhibitions did he really start to be in the game. With his actions, Mike taught me that summer to get in the ring and play hard and get dirty and have fun doing it.
Every once in awhile, I think about this. And it gets me to the next chapter in my life.
My Brother Mike today…still going strong.