-- The muddy, rumbling arena in Pecatonica, Illinois, looked like a scene from “Mad Max.” Helmeted gladiators, strapped into what once were Detroit’s finest, now stripped of anything that might break or burn, gunned their engines, and a deafening noise drowned out the roar of the crowd.
The goal here is simple: Be the last vehicle still able to inflict some damage, and may the best woman win.
This was Metal Mayhem 2015, a national demolition derby contest where drivers, men and women from across the country, battle for the chance to win $20,000 in prize money.
Some of the fiercest drivers at this year’s event, held at the Winnebago County Fairgrounds in June, were moms.
Kim Potocki, a stay-at-home mother of two and part-time Little League coach from Chelsea, Michigan, can crash up cars with the best of them.
“First off, the rule is that you never quit,” Potocki, 31, said. “Any woman that gets into a derby car the first time is either hooked or hates it. There is not usually an in-between.”
Drivers have to compete in individual qualifying heats before they can make it to a main heat or feature finals. Although the women’s heat is still known as the Powderpuff, there’s nothing soft and dainty about it. The competition features lots of grinding metal and thick black smoke from the occasional engine fire. The last car still running to make a hit wins.
Potocki has competed in 17 demolition derbies in the past nine years, and this year’s Metal Mayhem was her biggest competition yet. She squared off against 300 of the top derby drivers, including her husband, Chris.
“If we both make it to the feature, we will be competing against each other,” Kim Potocki said. “That’s not the first time that that has happened.”
Potocki’s main competition this year was another mother of two: Vicki Schutte of Monroe, Wisconsin. A welder by day, which is a useful trade in this sport, Schutte has demolition derby in her blood.
“I grew up with demolition derby,” she said. “My dad has done it since before I was born. So it was just something that I always felt comfortable with.”
Her uncle is Tory Schutte, known as the godfather of demolition derby. He runs Metal Mayhem as a promoter every year and said the secret to winning is “a good engine.”
“That’s the bottom line,” he added.
Vicki has had a string of successes in the derby pit, and her “destructive tendencies,” as newspaper articles have called it, are well-documented.
“In 15 years I have won three features,” she said. “I was actually the only girl that’s ever won my hometown derby, so that was a really big accomplishment for me.”
Once drivers put on their helmets, a requirement for competing , and climbed behind the wheel of a roaring machine, it was tough to tell the women from the men, and no one was holding back.
“Basically, my strategy is to keep myself calm and not drive as fast and crazy as I usually do,” Schutte said, as she prepared to start. “I'm really hoping that I don’t have something stupid or some kind of small error … I’ve seen people have their batteries die out there, or run out of gas.”
Demolition derby can be a dangerous game. After all, the main objective is crashing and cars regularly flip and roll.
When asked whether there are ever any injuries, Tory Schutte said, “everybody gets a little whiplash... some bruised ribs once in a while from banging into the cage, but deaths are very rare."
In her qualifying heat at Metal Mayhem, Vicki Schutte suffered a serious glitch when her drive shift failed and turned her car into a sitting duck.
“I made one hit and was done,” she said. “I was devastated. My eyes kind of filled up because a lot of hard work was put into that car.”
Kim Potocki emerged muddy but victorious from her heat and worked quickly to prep her battered car for the finals. Husband Chris had been knocked out of the derby by this point and helped her get the car ready.
“We’re wiring, trimming, clearing, we’re trying to get everything done, but ... this is it,” she said, laughing. “She won’t be pretty but she’ll be functional.”
When Potocki jumped into the driver’s seat for the final round, she was the only women among the 50 derby drivers competing. And when that flag dropped, it was a free for all.
Alas, it was not Polocki’s day.
“Overall, the whole competition has been great … a lot of good cars … a lot of fun so I think it was a good success,” she said.
She may be back to driving the carpool tomorrow, but she was already thinking about her next Metal Mayhem.