Saturday, August 29, 2009

Beater How-To: Beater to Derby in 10 Easy Steps


At some point, all beaters will be beyond their usable life and difficult choices must be made. Sell the car to an unsuspecting craigslister? Let it shamefully return to the earth in a junkyard? Or shall it go out in a blaze of Americana glory? Once the sensible decision is made, this is a guide to help you make the transition: Beater to Derby car.

In demolition derby, it's the little things that make all the difference between getting knocked out in the first five seconds or being able to compete for an entire weekend. Demolition derby is the lowest budget form of motorsport and your vehicle preparation should reflect that. There is no point in going to the Home Depot to shell out cash for steel and fasteners when the vehicle itself is practically a poorly organized yet well stocked hardware store. Think of your vehicle like Bear Grylls thinks of the forest. Sway bars? No - windshield bars. Spare tire? More like battery box. Rear seat? Not anymore - crash padding. So grab a case of PBR and a hammer and try these ten easy tricks to help save you cash, provide better derby performance, and create the illusion of safety.

1. Strip the Interior

This is the most boring step if the car belonged to you initially. If not, be prepared to amass a collection of new photos (some you'd rather not see...), empty packages of Newport Menthols, mysterious unlabeled VHS tapes, and broken pens.

Perhaps the easiest way it to take the seats out, pry the soda soaked floor covering loose from the rockers, and roll all of the trash into a carpet-tube for easy disposal. Then proceed to the nearest sink without touching your mouth or eyes.

With the seats out of the car, start taking loose the brittle interior body panels that could otherwise explode on impact. In the interest of convenience, resist the temptation of stripping the interior door handles at this point. It's also worth noting that the dash should stay with the car. It's a royal pain in the ass to take out, but more importantly its glowing red idiot beacons may be the first indicator that your car has shut off mid-derby.

2. Remove the Glass

It is of paramount importance to remove all glass in the vehicle for hopefully obvious reasons. Although it is possible to only remove the front and rear screens and roll down the windows so they look removed, this can come back to bite, or more appropriately cut you in the ass.

Start by removing all of the side windows either by taking them off of the tracks or by hurling a brick through aforementioned windows. Either way, you will most likely still have to vacuum up a lot of broken glass. Save thought by breaking the quarter windows.

Front and rear glass removal is certainly the most challenging part of a derby car build. The fancy way of removing the windshield is to remove all of the trim, soak the seals with WD-40 for 24 hours, then insert piano wire into the goo around the window frame. With gloves, grab the piano wire from both sides and pull it all the way around the glass - should pop right out afterwards. The everyman way of removing the front windshield it to throw something heavy through it and pick up the pieces. The only disadvantage to this method is that fine glass shards go everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. Broken glass also sticks into the window sealant, forming a halo of pain and sadness around on the windshield frame.

3. Hole in the Hood
At some point, the car will catch on fire. Most demo derby organizations are fully aware of this fact and require that you cut a hole in the hood so that one of their staff can walk over at a leisurely pace and put it out. There are a few questions to ask one's self before whipping out the air chisel:

-Where do the fuel lines run?
-Does that bracing do any good?
-Where is all that oil coming from?
-If the hood bends up, will I be able to see out of this hole?

After the considerations are made, start cutting to a size of about one square foot. Fridge racks make awesome hood hole guards.



4. The Mini-Spare

Somewhere underneath all of the mid-90's clothes, umbrellas, and cassette tape cases in the trunk is most likely a mini-spare and jack set. The wheel should be removed and placed on a non-driven (can't stress this enough) wheel so that the body can encroach further without contacting the tire. If you can find two-mini spares, perfect. Of course, don't forget to weld the jack set to its mounts while you are in there for some extra battering mass.

5. The Old Floor-Mat-Over-The-Alternator Trick

There's nothing like getting knocked out of a derby because the main lead on the alternator contacted the radiator or engine compartment, blowing the main charge relay. Save yourself the embarrassment by taking the smallest of the floor mats and draping it over the alternator. Then using coat hangers, 'safety wire' it to the alternator itself so the posts are covered for when the alternator it impacted by the body or is knocked off its mounts and left to dangle by the leads.

6. Spare Wheel Battery Box

Remember that wheel you replaced with the mini-spare? Find that and lay it face down on the passenger side floorboard. Drill a few holes corresponding to the lug pattern of the wheel and bolt it down to the floor. Take one of the other floor mats, fold it up and place it in the center of the wheel. Secure the battery with the vehicle's battery mounting hardware from under the hood or just use a ratchet strap, as shown below.

7. Easy Lifting

There is a bit of Darwinism present in the derby: low cars are always more prone to being driven over and killed by higher cars. It is advisable to find some way to lift your car an inch or two. Some have been known to cut off the end of the shock absorber and stuff it with shop rags. Others have covered bricks in duck tape and jammed them in between the spring coils. Whatever the method, it can't hurt.

8. Structural Modifications

When impacted from behind, some cars inherently bend up, some cars bend down, and some split at the seams. Cavalier: down, Grand Am: up, 1972-1976 Impala: up, 1977-up GM and Ford full size: down. Bending up, although not without its disadvantages, is preferable to bending down. Most drivers would prefer not being able to see out the back to having the back half of the car create an improvised road grader as it dragged it's ass around the arena, collecting mud and car parts along the way. To overcome the natural directional tendency of the rear of the car, some easy modifications can be made to ensure the car bends that way you'd want it to.

With access to heavy equipment, some drivers have notched the frames at the rear of the vehicle and jostled it with a front end loader until the recently cut gap is closed, at which point the frame is re-welded. I, not having this luxury, have had some success with beating the middle of the C-pillar with a baseball bat until they are more or less vertical, pre-stressing the rear of the car. Unfortunately, there is no scientific data to prove that this works, however, I can only say after having done this, none of the cars I've driven have bent down.

9. Cooling System

Antifreeze may taste good to dogs, but it's not so delicious to humans. To keep from getting a mouthful of hot Ethylene Glycol steam when the radiator does let go, flush it out and replace the coolant with water. To keep the radiator and hence the motor preserved a little bit longer, take the radiator loose at the top mounts so that it can lean back into the motor instead of splitting in half. Your cylinder head will thank you.

10. Securing the Bodywork

Securing the bodywork should be the last step before painting to keep you from crawling through windows and glass encrusted door frames, as well as to maintain access to the engine compartment until tech inspection. Keep the hood and trunk from obscuring your vision by drilling holes in the fenders and lids allowing for them to be coat-hangered together. To keep the doors from popping open as well as to stiffen things up a bit and not to mention reduce the element of surprise, loop a chain around the B-pillar that is slightly too short to reach all the way around. Run a long bolt through the eyelets of the chain and tighten it mercilessly until the doors and B-pillar become one entity.

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