Ashley Barber didn’t know there was an all-female class when she competed in her first demolition derby at the Tennessee State Fair seven years ago. She competed in the men’s class that night and lost her helmet to all the hard knocks, but placed seventh out of over 60 cars. Adrenaline, competition and encouragement from her husband made her a convert. She was back slamming into guys the following night.
For Ms Barber, 33, who competes in six to eight shows a year in her home state of Tennessee, the derby is a shared passion. Her husband, Atlas Barber, 35, buys the cars and takes care of the mechanical repairs and bodywork, while she takes care of the stripping and painting. He also competes, sometimes driving in the same events as his wife. Its cars are green; his are pink.
“That’s probably why we’re still together,” Ms Barber said with a laugh.
Derby season builds up in spring and peaks in late summer, when crowds fill the stands at local fairs to put down roots in the wreckage. Even in this burgeoning era of electric vehicles, the Sport remains popular – a throwback to (or perhaps the last gasp of) the era of thirsty carburetors, rumbling mufflers and noxious oil fumes.
Ms. Barber won two first places, at the Smith County Fair in Carthage, Tennessee, and the DeKalb County Fair in Alexandria, Tennessee, and took home $1,000 for each win. She often manages to be the last driver with a working car despite the best efforts of her male rivals, who don’t like losing to a woman and team up against her, according to Ms Barber.
“It sucks when you’re out there alone and they try to kick you out first,” she said.
For onlookers, the demolition derby can look like chaos in slow motion. Ms Barber said she thought that too, until she took part in one.
“Cars can go up to 20, 30 miles per hour on this track,” she said. “Sometimes it takes your breath away. The longest I spent there was 45 minutes. Beating and banging that long is almost, like, come on. You want it over.
This summer at the national fair in Lebanon, Tennessee, his 12-year-old daughter, Alyse, competed for the first time in the junior class. Alyse was driving her mother’s current derby car, a 1970s Chevrolet Caprice – painted pink. As Mrs. Barber mounted a shotgun, Alyse broke a fingernail and shook herself a bit. In the end, her mother says, “she overcame her fear.”
The fourth member of the family, Ashton, 9, will start competing “in a few years”, Ms Barber said.
She loves the car she drives in everyday life – a 1985 Monte Carlo SS, which she has called her dream car – but she tries not to get attached to the vehicles she drives in competition. “It’s just cars I find in the fields,” Ms Barber said.
Before a big event, she and her husband chat for weeks about their performance, which drivers they’re likely to face, and what would happen if it all came down to her and him. “Are we going to be soft on each other or let the other have it?” said Mrs. Barber.
They agreed to put on a good show, unless they destroy each other in the process. Whoever wins in this scenario, “we both come out with a lot of money,” Ms Barber said.
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