The Demo Derby Queen of Tennessee

Ashley Barber didn’t know there was an all-female class when she drove in her first demolition derby at the Tennessee State Fair, seven years ago. She competed in the men’s category that night, and lost her helmet from all the hard knocks but placed seventh out of more than 60 cars. The adrenaline, the competition and the supportive cheers of her husband made her a convert. She was back slamming into the guys the next night.

For Ms. Barber, 33, who competes in six to eight shows a year in Tennessee, her home state, derbying is a shared passion. Her husband, Atlas Barber, 35, buys the cars and does the mechanical repairs and bodywork, while she handles the stripping and painting. He also competes, sometimes driving in the same events as his wife. His cars are green; hers are pink.

“It’s probably why we’re still together,” Ms. Barber said with a laugh.

Derby season gears up in spring and peaks in late summer, when crowds fill the grandstands at local fairs to root on the wreckage. Even in this dawning age of electric vehicles, the sport remains popular — a throwback to (or perhaps last gasp of) the era of thirsty carburetors, rumbling mufflers and noxious oil fumes.

Ms. Barber has had two first-place finishes, at the Smith County Fair in Carthage, Tenn. and the DeKalb County Fair in Alexandria, Tenn. and won $1,000 for each victory. She often manages to be the last driver with a functioning car despite the efforts of her male rivals, who don’t like losing to a woman and team up against her, according to Ms. Barber.

“It sucks when you’re out there alone and they’re trying to put you out first,” she said.

For spectators, demolition derby can look like slow-motion chaos. Ms. Barber said she thought that, too, until she took part in one.

“The cars can get up to 20, 30 miles per hour on that track,” she said. “It knocks the breath out of you sometimes. The longest I’ve been out there is 45 minutes. Beating and banging for that long, it’s almost, like, c’mon. You want it to be over.”

This summer, at the state fair in Lebanon, Tenn., her 12-year-old daughter, Alyse, competed for the first time in the junior class. Alyse was behind the wheel of her mother’s current derby car, a 1970s Chevrolet Caprice — painted pink. As Ms. Barber rode shotgun, Alyse broke a nail and got a little rattled. In the end, her mother said, “she got over her fear.”

The fourth member of the family, Ashton, 9, will start competing “in a few years,” Ms. Barber said.

She is fond of the car she drives in everyday life — a 1985 Monte Carlo SS, which she called her dream car — but she tries not to have an attachment to the vehicles she uses in competition. “They’re just cars I find in fields,” Ms. Barber said.

Before a big event, she and her husband talk for weeks about how well they’ll do, the drivers they are likely to face and what would happen if it ever came down to just her and him. “Are we going to go easy on each other, or let the other have it?” Ms. Barber said.

They have agreed to put on a good show, short of destroying each other in the process. Whoever wins in that scenario, “both of us are coming out of it with good money,” Ms. Barber said.

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