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Drawn to demolition derbies

The object of a demolition derby is simple: Keep crashing into other cars until yours is the last one running.

It’s much like bumper cars – only with real steel and gas-powered engines – and for decades it has been a popular attraction at county fairs and racetracks across the country.

“It’s a pretty big rush,” said photographer Drew Anthony Smith, who witnessed his first demolition derby last month in Platte City, Missouri, just outside Kansas City.

It’s also surprisingly safe, he said.

“The drivers wear neck braces and they have their cars reinforced. They have safety there,” said Smith, a free-lance photographer based in Austin, Texas. “The night I was shooting, I think three cars caught on fire, but everyone was OK.”

Firefighters are on hand to extinguish any flames caused by the wrecks, but there are plenty of other safety measures in place.

The dirt track, for example, is watered down to keep cars from building up too much speed. There is a ditch built around the perimeter of the track, keeping the cars far away from the spectators. And there’s also quite a bit of work that goes into getting the cars ready for the event.

Smith spent days in the garage with two brothers, Cody and Brett Poos, as they made changes to their cars to keep them safe – and competitive.

“They weld in reinforcement bars inside the car ... and then they do other little modifications to make sure they won’t get taken out early,” Smith said. “They know certain spots to weld and push metal up so it won’t interfere with the tires if they get hit really hard. They customize the bumpers and bend them in.”

Gas tanks are also moved to the inside the car so they won’t be as vulnerable to collisions, Smith said.

“It's such a mess; they’re just tearing guts out of the car,” he said. “You can kind of see in the garage how there's just stuff everywhere, seats and parts.”

The Poos brothers have been competing in demolition derbies for the last four years, starting when they were 16, Smith said.

“They were awesome to hang out with and talk to - just Midwestern guys that love to ride four-wheelers and do demolition derby and hunt deer,” he said.

The brothers get their cars from auctions at an average price of $500-$1,000, Smith said.

“They were saying older guys, some veterans, will actually have like $20,000 of specialized gear to put into their cars,” Smith said. “But what these kids are doing is just the pure stock. Just the basics. Just putting a simple starter in, gas tank, and protecting it as much as they can. Maybe a cage inside. That's all they do. But some guys get pretty serious about it.”

Derby night was a big draw this year at the Platte County Fair, which was celebrating its 150th anniversary. Platte City is a small town with a population of less than 5,000, and many of the drivers were well-known to the crowd.

“I don’t know if you’d say (the drivers) were like heroes to them, but they really did have people they would root for,” Smith said.

There were separate derbies for different classes of cars. Most lasted about 10 minutes, but some went longer once it got down to two cars.

There aren’t many rules, but there is strategy involved.

“You want to use your back end to hit people,” Smith said. “You want to save your front end, because that's where your engine is.

“So a lot of the time, a lot of the action is them trying to get into a position where they can slam it into reverse and bump into someone. ... They're going for hits in reverse and then they try and like maneuver around to get into a position where their front is protected. Then they go back and hit someone.”

The winners get trophies and prize money, the latter of which inspires some drivers to tour the region to compete in other derbies.

But demolition derby really isn’t about the cash, Smith learned.

“Building the cars is just as much fun as smashing them,” he said. “It's a community thing, it's fun. They’re guys who like to play with machines and build things.”

- Kyle Almond, CNN