Chasing the rush
By ELIZABETH COSIN / Healdsburg Correspondent
Craig Chandler is addicted to the adrenaline rush.
What else would make a grown man climb into a stripped down ‘70s muscle car, drive it into a small arena and start ramming it into other competitor’s cars until only one of them is left standing?
“It’s like being in a fist fight except you’re in a car,” says Chandler, a Healdsburg native. “You can’t get into a fist fight or you’ll end up in jail, but you can go ram somebody with your car.”
Over the past two decades, he has built a reputation as one of the better drivers on local and regional demolition derby circuits. In August, he won first place in the Lyon County Fair and Rodeo Demolition Derby in Yerington, Nev.
And that’s just what he does for fun.
By day, he is a sought-after tree surgeon, spending his days climbing to the tops of trees that are 100 feet and taller using just a basic harness and spurs.
Chandler grew up as a fan of demolition derby, attending many with his father, a welder. He found an outlet in football, and at Healdsburg High School he was a well-regarded outside linebacker.
After graduating he went to work for a logging company and later as a tree-trimmer. He eventually got a job with the state and became an arborist before starting his own tree trimming company, Redwood Empire Tree Service.
Chandler, who also hunts and fishes, is an analog man, having little use for things like cellphones and computers.
He was 30 when he bought his first derby car, a Lincoln he found parked in the yard of a guy who couldn’t get it to pass the smog inspection. That’s how Chandler has found most of the nearly two dozen cars and car bodies he stores in and around Healdsburg.
“It was at the right time and the right minute, and I went for it,” says Chandler. He got a copy of the rules and entered his first derby, not knowing what to expect.
“It was like being in a blender full of rocks,” he says, “like stepping onto a beehive. Cars are hitting you from every direction, every which way. I felt like it was over in five seconds, which obviously it wasn’t.”
Chandler placed fourth overall, one place away from being “in the money,” he says, but the experience changed his life.
“I was hooked,” he says. “It was the biggest rush. I just had to get out there again.”
Chandler entered as many events as he could and tried to watch and learn on a circuit where drivers closely guard the secrets of the trade.
At first he stayed around Sonoma County, when derbies were held at fairgrounds in places like Ukiah, Calistoga and Petaluma, often as part of county fairs. Now there are only a few, so Chandler also travels to Utah and Nevada.
Sometimes winners walk away with a few hundred dollars — for his win in Yerington, Chandler earned $800. He also is good enough at the sport to attract sponsors: Lemos Street Kustomz in Windsor; Mark Tireman, Maffei’s Automotive and Redwood Auto Body in Healdsburg.
While all the parts for derby cars now can be purchased online, he continues to build each of his from the cars he collects and is always on the hunt for.
“I’m looking behind people’s houses and fences and fields,” he says. “My favorite cars, like everyone else who does this for a long time, are ‘74-‘76 Impalas, GMs, Caprices, Oldsmobiles, Buicks and 1960-69 Lincoln Continentals, those good old ones with the suicide doors. And 1970s Cadillacs.”
Chandler strips the cars each winter and uses the parts he collects to build two or three cars for the derby season, which begins in the spring. Cars are literally stored on top of each other in his garage and storage facility, surrounded by piles of bumpers and other parts.
Anything he doesn’t use gets sold or recycled, and when his derby cars are no longer usable, he stacks them, crushes the roofs and sells them to a scrap yard in Richmond.
Chandler turns 49 later this year, making him one of the older guys on the circuit, but he is determined to keep doing both work and racing for as long as he can.
“As long as I can climb trees, I’m still gonna run cars,” he says, a wide grin on his face. “So I guess I’m gonna be doing this till I’m 63. At least.
“Work hard. Play hard,” he says. “That’s my motto.”