Hunched over a car bonnet, tinkering with an engine, 'Boxer Jack' hardly seems to notice the crowd swarming around his neon-yellow frogeyed Ford Scorpio. Now and then he casts an eye over the paddock, noting the shiny vehicles that line the grass in the drizzly half-light.
We're at Foxhall Stadium, Ipswich, England. In a wooded clearing stands the arena where – in just a few hours – Boxer, aka Jason Jackson, hopes to win back his World Banger Championship crown. A former three-time champion, the tipper-truck driver from the county of Essex shone in a series of qualifiers this year, and is hoping to get his hands on a cheque for £1000 and the ultimate accolade, a spray-painted gold roof.
Trackside, mascot Timmy the Tyre and the pit-lane ladies, in top hats and tails, get ready to present the last-chance qualifiers. These brutal bouts will put another three drivers on the grid, and possibly a few in hospital. Thousands of fans look on as, under the glare of the floodlights, the pace car breaks away, and the pack crunch together at full velocity.
Straight away there’s a guy slammed into the wall, smoke rising from the bonnet like a geyser. Limousines, heavy-bodied American marques and even a hearse stream by. An MPV lurks behind a smouldering wreck, to ram anyone who passes. Pretty soon, the aroma of burning rubber, cigarettes and petrol start to suck you in. Perhaps this is what Boxer means by 'pure bangers'.
Back in the paddock, this stout, six-foot, but politely spoken gent explains the attraction: 'My dad done a little bit of racing so I’ve always been around it. Once you get attached there’s no going back, it’s like a drug,' he says. He started racing at 14 and, naturally, used to box too… 'Yeah, I went from getting my face smashed up to smashing up cars.'
Boxer’s dad, Michael Jackson ('the original one'), remembers the days when scaffolding poles were used for roll cages. 'It was better then, before all the cars got too powerful and more money was spent,' he says. Today’s drivers, mostly men aged 18-40, spend about £200 on a vehicle, before modifications – up to maybe £1000 in total for top events.
Virtually everyone here has a bloodline to the sport, or is connected to the motor trade – scrap dealers, welders, mechanics, panel-beaters (that goes for the fans too). Drivers have come here tonight from across the UK, and even the European continent. Demolition derbies were born in the USA in the 1950s, when steel sleds were pitted against each other for total annihilation. In the UK, an element of racing was introduced and stock cars were seen on circuits like Brands Hatch.
Tonight’s organiser, Spedeworth, runs tracks from Northampton to Wimbledon, and was founded by the late Les Eaton, who in the 1960s helped nurture a range of classes and opened up oval racing to the masses. At one point, stock-car racing was a feature on ITV’s World of Sport, up against the BBC’s weekend flagship, Grandstand. Today, scores of banger competitions take place up and down the country run by rival promoters, though a governing body, the Oval Racing Council (orci.co.uk), helps to bring the factions together and also oversees health and safety.
Boxer looks nervous as he is chauffeured towards the start line. Word has gotten out that there are several drivers waiting to take him down. 'You make friends then you lose friends… it should all stay on the track,' he says. 'Obviously you’ve got rivalries but off the track I say hello to them – on the track we want to kill each other.'
To a backdrop of flamethrowers, Boxer roars onto the track, and power slides around the outer edge, to jeers and boos from the crowd. 'He wrecked Pikey in the semi-finals,' one guy yells to his mate on the terraces. This sport that’s part-NASCAR, part-pantomime theatre, is certainly not lacking in heroes and villains.
Nothing like the earlier heats, this is a serious race, and all drivers are pushing hard from the get-go. Boxer is jostling for position right at the front, aiming to survive all 20 laps. Suddenly, there a massive crash. Just a few laps in, Boxer has ploughed into the wall and there’s no coming back. The flags are up and racing grinds to a halt. No one saw this twist coming. As the marshalls race over, Boxer emerges, cheered off stage to fight another day.
When regulations are taming motor sport, this is proof what a joy the bangers can be – and, most of all, how anyone with a love of motors can join in.
Trackside, stood beside an almost tearful Boxer is a teenage lad called Adam, who has also just had his race come to an end. 'I came off around the second or third lap, couldn’t really tell,' he says, eyes still wide with the adrenaline. He’s just mangled a Lincoln Continental that until recently was cruising around the Pacific Northwest in Washington state – and, as the fireworks erupt for the winner, his face lights up with a smile. His dad said it would be lap one, so at least that’s proved him wrong.
Photography by Tom Shaxson