Civilizations are perhaps most often characterized by the works of architecture they leave behind. If so, the Arkansan hillbilly would be defined by his aluminum bleachers and stadium flood lights just as the Romans are by their Coliseum. The inflatable pig (that resembles no such animal) atop the concession stand mocks its merchandise, the corn dog and inevitable funnel cake booths dot the small strip of dirt. The glamorous Parsons Stadium itself is commodious and crude, but accomplishes its purpose well.
The real spectacle here, however, is the people. A description of various representatives of the crowd would run thus: A man with a glaring t-shirt sporting a barely clothed blonde; the teenage girl with a pink stud in her tongue; a fellow with short cropped hair and scrawled over with two arms’ worth of tattoos; one curious stranger who could easily slip into the role of Judas Iscariot (his hair and lowering brow closely resemble one’s mental image of the betrayer); the untold dozens of men and women wearing one piece or another of hunting gear, and numerous other eccentric persons.
Of course, this humorous and mocking account of the attending crown would not be entirely accurate if I insisted on the point that not a single decent person was in attendance. Indeed there are, scattered in amongst the camouflage baseball caps, several people who appear to belong to other strata of the human race. Some women comb their hair and dress nicely, some men have the audacity to tuck their shirts into their jeans (and shirts with collars, no less). However, in describing my overall impressions of the melee, I must necessarily gloss over such irregularities and glaring contradictions.
I imagine that one unique feature of traveling abroad in a foreign country would be the sensation of hearing a different language spoken all about one. It is here I learn that one need not cross the border to experience this sensation. The language is entirely foreign to me, and I feel immersed in a culture diametrically opposed to that of my native land. The sounds, sights, and smells have all the glamour of a circus sideshow, and all the excitement of a dogfight.
This being the prevailing atmosphere of the place, predictably, the exalted spectacle is likewise singular. Battered vehicles, years past their prime, are smeared over with gaudy paints and support fiendish mascots. Mangled hulls plunge and strike, careening wildly over the track. The more perilous the position of the driver, whether trapped in an overturned automobile or driving a vehicle erupting in flames, the more the crowd shouts, stamps, and roars. The only exception to this general rule is their enthusiastic applause when the driver is safely delivered and performs a celebratory victory dance.
When each new heat begins there is such a stamping and hooting that the stands seem about to collapse. The derby drivers’ parallels in the Roman world, the gladiators of old, would no doubt find the clamorous event a familiar one. The cheers of the crowd greeting the victor of a head-on collision between two wailing derby cars is more than reminiscent of those of the raucous Roman nobles lauding the skill of a roaring lion tearing at the flesh of the hapless martyr.
The intermission brings with it a blessed respite from the squealing of tires and the revving of motors devoid of mufflers. The John Deere ‘zamboni’ smoothes the dirt of the arena, scored as it is by screeching wheels and spattered by fluid from crushed radiators. After an absence all too short for my liking, the man with the obscene shirt comes back and sits in front of me…empty handed. They’ve stopped selling beer down below.
Everyone stands for the commencement of the final round. 79 ploughs into 51, yellow, blue, and orange flags flap in the wind from the windows of the machines of destruction. 73, 51, and 69 are smashed together, 13 flies about like a madman. The roar is deafening and my right earplug is falling out. A thrill of excitement ripples through me, despite the ludicrous nature of the scene below. The carnage is great as lumps of twisted and distorted metal lie scattered like gore in the arena. A black, hood painted with the colors of the Mexican flag huffs and puffs about, smoke pours from other hoods and 56 seems possessed of the Devil. One dusty, nondescript vehicle is pushed over the barrier till he is half in and half out of the arena. The despairing driver drops his flag. 12 and 13 seem exhausted, but fight on for the glory.
I am an outsider and have no special partiality, but most everyone else seems to be rooting for their favorite scrap of metal. There is a smell of beer on the breeze and clouds of smoke and dust billow up from the track, illuminated in the stadium lights. Sparks fly from ‘Johnny 77’, and the insatiable 69 screams forward at an alarming pace. Flames leap from the red car and are quickly extinguished by someone on the edge, his flag yet hangs aloft. 43, looking much the worse for wear, clatters back and forth, wreaking havoc. Black smoke, white smoke and various other unidentified and indigestible fumes fill the air. The contestants are like three-legged dogs with one eye apiece. They fight till each one oozes with blood. Another flag down. They fight to the last. $3,000, a fine quarry for such sport.
Entering into the spirit of the game, my eyes stay riveted in spite of myself. All aflame, will the Mexican car retreat? The crowd stamps its feet and the valiant little blue flag goes down in the smoke. Countdown to the finish. Three cars remain. Deadlock. Collision. 13 is primed for victory, hitting 7 and 69 in turn. A great pop is heard as 13 pummels 69. The orange car is full of bravado, but is in pretty bad shape. 7’s flag falls. The driver of 69 snaps his off before being rammed again for the hundredth time. The little gray Chevy triumphs.
As the crowd cheers and roars and runs down into the arena to congratulate the winner and sympathize with the losers, I see an overweight woman wearing a Bass Pro T-shirt wobbling down the rows of bleachers and hear the announcer’s pronounced Southern accent boom out over the stadium. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.