The rest of the world is about to find out what some Utahns already know: Our pretty great state is a hotbed of demolition derby action.
Weekend after weekend, in arenas hither and yon, drivers like Layton’s Steve “Scooter” Carroll and West Haven’s Johnny Gullo are tearing it up in the dirt, bent on smashing the living daylights out of each other.
And once the derby’s over, these guys are hard at work in their shops, rebuilding their cars to go out and do it all over again.
The drama of Utah’s demolition derby circuit is the focus of “Kings of Crash,” a new reality television series debuting next Sunday, Feb. 10, on the Velocity channel. Drivers Carroll and Gullo, along with Gullo’s 20-year-old son Dalton, are three of eight “four-wheeled gladiators” whose lives were documented by TV crews during last summer’s competitive season.
For Johnny Gullo, the exciting thing about “Kings of Crash” is its realistic portrayal of the sport he’s been immersed in for 25 years.
“You can’t script what we’re doing. Once you’re in the arena, what happens happens,” says Gullo, a Top of Utah restaurant owner and co-owner of Stirrin’ Dirt Racing, a company that organizes and promotes demolition derbies in Utah.
Carroll, who first drove in a demolition derby at age 14, agrees.
“Velocity did a great job of allowing us to be who we are and not dictating one thing we did or said,” says the owner of a Layton auto glass shop. He adds, “They just said ‘Do your thing’ — they didn’t ask us to stage or fake anything.”
The eight-week series should appeal to viewers whether they’re demo derby fans or not, adds Dalton Gullo, because, let’s face it, our society seems to be drawn to things of a scrappy nature.
“So what’s better than watching a bunch of cars go out and beat the crap out of each other?” asks the Weber State University sophomore.
Smasher or smashee
“Kings of Crash” will air on Sundays through March 22. According to a press release, the reality show is set in the “world of legalized road rage, where the accidents aren’t accidents, and the characters are as combustible as the collisions.”
Demolition derby — a sport in which drivers deliberately ram their cars into one another — is popular at fairs and festivals throughout the United States, but Utah is known for its own brand of the pastime, says Bob Scanlon, general manager for Velocity, which is owned by Discovery Communications.
“This Utah circuit is pretty aggressive; I think it is the most aggressive I have ever seen,” Scanlon says in a phone interview from Annapolis, Md.
That hard-hitting reputation is what attracted Scanlon and others at Velocity to feature Utah’s derby circuit in a reality program. Film crews visited the Beehive State and shot casting reels at various demolition derbies, looking at how well the drivers performed and how they came across on-camera, Scanlon says.
Eight participants were ultimately chosen for “Kings of Crash,” including the three from the Top of Utah, and none of them fit the stereotypical “redneck” image often associated with demolition derby.
“They’re good-looking, they’re articulate, they’re passionate (about the sport),” says the television executive, who adds that demolition derby is the most popular type of motor sport in Utah.
The series not only focuses on actual events the drivers competed in during 2012 — from Heber City to Tooele to Farmington — but also the drivers’ preparation for the races, the physical toll the sport takes on their bodies and how the sport affects their family relationships.
Outside the arena
Getting used to being followed by TV cameras was tough at first, Carroll says, but he soon settled in and realized he just needed to be himself.
The Layton driver says he was born into the world of demolition derby; his father, the late Steve Carroll, was a pioneer in the sport in Utah. Being part of “Kings of Crash” was something the younger Carroll saw as an opportunity to continue his family’s legacy.
Carroll says he and his father helped develop Utah’s reputation for aggressive driving, but nowadays, at the ripe old age of 36, the new TV star admits he’s had to change his style a bit.
“I’ve had to slow down on those hard hits, so my body can handle it,” he says, explaining that competing in one heat of a derby is like being in 35 to 40 car wrecks in just 10 minutes.
And after 22 years of always wearing shorts in competitions, Carroll says that has changed, too, due to an incident that occurred during the filming of “Kings of Crash.”
“It will be in the show,” he says, adding, “It needs to be a surprise.”
The TV show will give folks a better understanding of what goes on behind the scenes of demolition derby, Carroll says, from the time spent building cars to the sport’s aftereffects. In his case, Carroll says, over the years he has suffered broken ribs, arms and fingers, along with being knocked out twice and being stitched up multiple times.
“It’s a dangerous sport and why we do it is beyond me,” he says, “but I just know it’s fun and I love it.”
Brain power, too
Gullo says he didn’t even know how to use a screwdriver when he first saw a friend compete in a demolition derby and got hooked. The next day, the friend pushed a car into the driveway for Gullo’s wife to drive, and Gullo started building cars for her until he began competing himself.
“It’s the adrenaline rush about it — the carnage,” says Gullo.
The pastime also involves a lot of strategy, he says, explaining, “It’s very mental — it’s a very cerebral sport that way.”
Gullo says he was hauling cars to derbies last summer for another “Kings of Crash” participant when he and son Dalton were drafted into the program: “We just happened to be in the right spot at the right time,” he says.
The West Haven driver says the show’s cast has been invited to a party in Salt Lake City to watch the reality show’s first episode on Feb. 10. Although he’s only seen brief clips from the series so far, Gullo said it looks good.
“I know it’ll only get better as the season goes on because the drama keeps building from the first show to the last show,” he says.
However, Gullo admits he isn’t a big fan of the title chosen for the program. He jokes that being labeled “Kings of Crash” only puts a “big target on our backs” for other drivers to challenge.
Dalton Gullo is studying video production at Weber State, so participating in the series also afforded him a glimpse into how a television show is created.
“That’s kind of what I’ve been in love with for the last five years,” he says.
A way to heal
“Kings of Crash” touches on some personal stories of the Top of Utah drivers. Gullo had a stroke a few years back that left his left side paralyzed, but he says working on his cars in the shop was a form of rehab as he recovered.
After his father passed away from cancer in 2009, Carroll says he avoided going to demolition derbies for a while because it was too painful. But the enthusiasm of his own sons — Coyte, 17, and Boston, 8 — for the sport lured him back.
“I knew I couldn’t give it up forever because it’s in your blood and it becomes part of your life,” he says.
Yet, Carroll says, his favorite part of derbies isn’t the driving, but the time spent building cars with his friends and his sons: “You can’t get that time back,” he says. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world, any minute I’ve spent building cars with my kids.”
Demolition derby has been a family activity for the Gullos, with Johnny’s wife and daughter driving, too, although spouse Jeri has been sidelined recently by a knee replacement, and Jordan, 23, won’t be behind the wheel again until she returns from a church mission in May.
Both Johnny and Dalton say they enjoy the father-son bonding time in the shop.
But put the two in a derby arena together, as competitors, and Gullo quips, “We will try and kill each other.”
No one is getting voted off the island — or out of the arena — in “Kings of Crash.”
The new reality show, which debuts Feb. 10, doesn’t use a weekly elimination format or award a huge cash prize. Instead, the program chronicles the ups and downs of eight Utah demolition derby drivers during a 2012 period of real-life competitions.
Three Top of Utah residents are in the cast of the program, which airs at 8 p.m. Sundays on the Velocity channel and runs through March 22. Steve “Scooter” Carroll of Layton and Johnny and Dalton Gullo of West Haven join Katy and Ryan Sweat, Mont Sweat and TJ McPhee, all of Heber; James “Gumby” Simko of Salt Lake City; and Jarrod Lazenby of Erda.
The drivers compete in events each weekend for derby prize money or the “Mad Dog” title for the most aggressive driver.
One of the qualities that will make “Kings of Crash” appealing is its family-oriented nature, says Bob Scanlon, general manager for the Velocity channel.
“It’s a family-centric sport,” he says. “Everybody helps out, everybody works on building the cars, everybody goes to the event.”
The camaraderie between the contestants is also unusual, he says. Although the participants are definitely out to beat each other, Scanlon says, they are also willing to help each other out with fixes when cars break down.
Will there be a second season for “Kings of Crash”?
“I am very optimistic,” Scanlon says, adding that after its Velocity debut, the series is set to play on the Discovery Channel, which may generate further interest.
Another season would likely feature the same core group of Utah derby drivers, he says. One idea might be to pit them against drivers from another part of the country in an East vs. West event.
Carroll, the Layton dirver, says he is looking forward to being part of a second season of the demolition derby show if there is one. But, he adds, “TV show or no TV show, it’s part of my life. It’s what I’ve always done.”