Crashing cars and caballeros

As the checkered flag waved, the cars roared to life, splitting the air with sonic abuse. Their tires spurted fountains of black mud high into the air. A Woodland police officer walking outside the railing of the ring, next to the bleachers, cringed as a shower of clumps doused his immaculate black uniform, and then he sneered as he daintily wiped them off.

The mutant muscle cars dueled in the thick muddy trenches of the Yolo County Fair’s Demolition Derby arena, spinning out and then slamming into each other like the bodies of WWE wrestlers. Gasoline arced from hoods like blood from a victim in a splatter film. A souped-up station wagon with a Mexican flag on its roof and “Ramos Oil” on its side hurtled toward a ’60s-era sedan. Painted like an American flag, with “911” spray-painted on the side in black, the sedan revved its engine with gut-wrenching, muffler-free volume. An orange car spouted white smoke from the hood as it rolled toward a smashup. Flames sometimes flashed above the chrome pipes that jutted out of the crumpled cars’ hoods like tusks.

Outside the arena, the fair offered other amusements to its patrons. What drew them out to this event, when the more massive California State Fair beckoned, just 30 minutes away? It wasn’t the deep-fried Twinkies, the corn dogs or even the Ranger—a ride that spun riders upside down, emptying them of pocket change and possibly their false teeth. Such thrills can be found elsewhere.

No, the appeal here was the irreplaceable regional flair, embodied by the fair’s inhabitants. The chic ranchero dudes dressed to kill in black pants and shirts, white cowboy hats, white belts and cowboy boots. The ancient farmers in John Deere mesh caps—but not because they’re ironic and cool—and crisp blue overalls, presiding over antique steam-powered mining machines. Add to that the fact that the fairgrounds are tree-shaded, grass-covered and much more appealing than the asphalt expanses of Cal Expo. And the stage, where Rocky and the Revelles played ’50s rock ’n’ roll covers and showed off their pompadours, or Mexican music thundered and people salsa-danced.

Yolo County’s large Latino population makes up the lion’s share of the fair’s regular patrons, and some of the booths cater directly to them. Paco’s Punk Shop sold an array of T-shirts and other garments, ranging from those advertising the Mexican death-metal band Brujeria and commanding “Attention Gringo! Ride With Pancho Villa” to Ramones hoodies and spiked collars. Another booth sold CDs of Mexican Norteño music as well as rap en Español. Advertisements for churros and “Indian Fry Bread” were obscured by clouds of barbecue-scented smoke from a neighboring food stand.

The lights blazed after nightfall as the crowd dispersed. Stuffed like tamales, they walked slowly past the sheriffs on horseback, finished with the festivities until next year.