BROOKSVILLE — Mark Murchie showed up for the last day of his demolition derby career with a stomach full of butterflies and an airbrushed hoodie bearing the name that everyone knew him by: Froggy.
He had spent 25 years behind the wheels of beat-up Buick Centuries and Chevrolet Impalas, conduits of cathartic joy. He’d racked up a wall full of trophies and earned a reputation as a showman from central Florida up through the Carolinas. In recent years, though, the brute force of the sport had taken its toll: a broken sternum, a twice-broken wrist, collapsed lungs.
He had the ache of a man who’d given half his life to collision, and he had the sense that this was the end.
“My body’s saying, ‘Quit,’” he said.
The prospect of hanging up his helmet was made easier by the feeling that the derby scene was healthy. As he looked around the pit area behind the Hernando County Fairgrounds’ dirt track Saturday night, he saw more cars than he had in years. There were cars in bad shape and cars in worse shape, cars with stars-and-stripes paint jobs and cars graffitied in celebration of the unofficial stoner holiday, 4/20.
Somewhere across that expanse of grass and metal was the continuation of his legacy. Froggy’s son, Mark Jr., was known by just about everyone as Tadpole. Like his dad, he had a lean frame and a quiet energy that found its outlet in a dirt track.
At 19, he’d already racked up a handful of wins. And he’d inherited his father’s showman sensibilities, handing out frog-shaped cutouts to kids before races, jumping up and down on his car’s roof during the judging for the best-looking car award. He’d starred in a magazine feature by the fashion photographer Danielle Levitt, who found him at a derby in South Carolina and called him and his dad “local heroes and celebs.” And he’d given Froggy, an independent driver his whole career, a jolt of pride in recent weeks when he picked up two local sponsors.
Tadpole would carry on the family legacy, but Froggy’s plan for passing the baton already had ruptured. A week earlier, he’d said that if Tadpole could beat him in the derby’s figure-eight race, he retire and pass the nickname of Froggy down to his son.
But rain had pushed the figure-eight from Friday night to Saturday, and promoters let the drivers decide if they wanted to have it at all.
Race or no race, Mark Murchie Sr. would end the night retired, and Mark Murchie Jr. would end the night as Froggy.
Tadpole was about 10 when he realized that smashing cars into each other for the joy of it was not something most parents did. He’d hear spectators calling to each other in the stands: “These people are crazy.” His dad didn’t seem crazy to him.
Soon he helped Froggy prep his cars, painting them wild colors, pulling off door panels, learning how to take out the windows without shattering the glass. Froggy taught him how to carve an advantage in a sport where victory can boil down to who can keep his car running a few seconds longer. Wrap the drive shaft in duct tape, move precious wires a few inches back from the fender — anything to buy time.
For Froggy, racing was the shortest path to adrenaline. He wanted to “just get out and beat the snot out of my cars.” Tadpole looks at it differently, and his sentences are freighted with reverence for the craft. He taught himself about car parts and mechanics by watching YouTube videos, quickly surpassing his dad’s technical knowledge.
Froggy is happy to break down a car and crudely spray-paint his name on the side before a race. Tadpole relishes an intricate paint job.
Little has changed between the father’s generation of demolition derby and the son’s, Froggy said, but the biggest shift is in how drivers armor their cars. Froggy is a purist for bone-stock — cars that have nothing added on. The derbies are about speed and the satisfying crunch of metal on metal, and preparing a car is an art of subtraction.
“The cars (these days) are so welded up they’re like tanks,” he said. “But I’ll go out there with a non-welded car against a welded car and beat it.”
Tadpole, like many of his generation, is more amenable to heavy-duty prep, happy to weld his doors shut rather than cinch them with spare seatbelts.
“Even if the car’s running like shit,” he said, “it makes me feel better if it’s got a pretty paint job.”
As derby time approached at the fairgrounds, only a few bodies populated the bleachers. The speakers blared crowd-hyping anthems of freedom and destruction: Livin’ on a Prayer, I Feel Free, You Shook Me All Night Long.
An announcement cut in: The drivers’ meeting was about to start. Tadpole climbed out of a car at the end of the pit. He wore a ragged white T-shirt with a cartoon of a frog and a tadpole on the back.
“I’m kinda stoked,” he said, his speech high and quick. “I’m ready to go.”
The other drivers were lined up in a long semicircle. There were a few dozen of them, all men, some with baby faces, some with wild gray hair. Froggy was there already, nervously bouncing on his heels and punching a fist into an open hand.
He had come to believe that if you’re not nervous before and during a heat, you don’t deserve to be on the track. Now he was anxious to see if he would race at all.
“How many people wanna do the figure-eight race?” an organizer with a microphone asked.
Froggy and Tadpole raised their hands.
“We only got two, three?”
The meeting fizzled for a minute. Froggy told Tadpole that he’d convinced two other drivers to do the figure-eight, but they weren’t at the meeting. Then he disappeared.
They had wrangled four people for the figure-eight, and that was enough.
Tadpole climbed through the window of a van painted red, yellow and green, snagged the key and peeled out onto the dirt track.
He pointed the van toward a set of bleachers and hopped out, his arms full of green paper frog cutouts that Froggy had bought at the Dollar Tree. A bigger crowd filled the stands now. As Tadpole approached, kids ran toward him to grab cutouts.
Froggy developed this practice years ago, he said. The adrenaline rush of driving meant little if there was no crowd to give a vicarious thrill. When he started driving, he was working in the produce section of a Save-A-Lot, and he told coworkers and customers that if they showed up, he’d put their kids’ names on the car.
He got his own nickname early — the first three cars he bought for derbies all had frogs living inside them. He made Froggy T-shirts. He cut out pictures of frogs and glued them to popsicle sticks, so kids could wave them around. His most memorable racing moment, he said, came in 2011 when an 86-year-old woman asked him to autograph her breast.
“Put ‘Froggy’ on there,” he said — on a car, on a sign, on a patch of skin — “and people go crazy.”
The sky darkened. The crowd stood for the flag, then roared for its favorites in the best-looking car contest. The van didn’t win, but people roared and stomped the bleachers for Tadpole.
Then they were lining up two-by-two, Froggy in the van, Tadpole in a smaller car. Someone waved a flag, and dirt spewed from the earth where the tires churned.
Tadpole’s car stalled on the first lap, settling near a stack of tires and forcing drivers to take a wider berth. The rest continued in a figure-eight pattern. Froggy held tight in second place, accelerating on the straightaways and sliding hard into the turns.
Still, it was a three-car race. The announcer raised the pitch of his voice, trying to rile up the crowd.
Then the car in front took a bigger lead, and as Froggy fell behind, his passes on the crossing point of the figure-eight drew ever closer to the leading car.
Froggy accelerated. The van shot through a split second after the leading car.
An oooooh floated from the bleachers.
Another crossing. No collision. From the stands, the margin looked like inches.
The crowd braced itself. This was what they’d come for. It was what Froggy lived for.
Another miss. Ooooooh. And then an airhorn blew. Second place for Froggy.
Two of the cars pulled out of the arena, but Froggy piloted the van over to Tadpole’s stalled-out car. He backed the van up, rear to rear, and as his son sat in the dead car driver’s seat, he gently reversed them both out of the arena.
“As you can see here, family helping family,” the announcer said. “Give ‘em a round of applause, folks.”
Froggy stood in the patch of dirt outside the track. All night long, tires had ripped through this earth, the car motors revving and fumes billowing. The midway glowed in the distance, and lights shot onto the arena.
In a semicircle around him lay the mangled husks of cars too beaten to go on.
The derby heats had given the crowd the crashes it came for. Children ran from the stands to climb on the fence — next to a sign that discouraged climbing. During the bone-stock heat, a driver in an orange jumpsuit lifted his hand out of his window in pain. An ambulance carted him off.
And Froggy had made it on the track one more time after all.
He stood in the shadows, waiting for the last heat of the night, and Tadpole waited inside an Impala with a huge stuffed frog roped to the roof.
A dozen engines screamed over each other. Anonymous bits of shrapnel flew. A car went halfway over the barrier. Authorities paused the heat to put out a small car fire.
“C’mon, junior!” Froggy kept yelling.
Eventually, Tadpole stopped moving. Froggy couldn’t tell if it was his battery or something under the hood or if he was just stuck. Firefighters stopped the race again to quell another fire.
At least six cars had outlasted Tadpole, but he whooped wildly as he pulled himself from the car at the break. He ran over to Froggy, trying to explain why he’d stalled.
Froggy cut him off.
“Go out there and throw that frog out.”
Tadpole turned on his heels, sprinted to the car, pulled the stuffed frog — miraculously intact — from the roof. He held it aloft in one hand as he galloped around the edge of the track, his other arm waving upward, beseeching the crowd to make noise.
They roared for him.
Halfway around the track, he darted into the arena. People and wreckage obscured Froggy’s vantage point, but he knew what happened. Tadpole had found the frog’s new owner.
It was the point of all this, at least to Froggy: finding not just personal catharsis, but also a joy to pass along — to a crowd or to a single, wide-eyed kid.
“Look at it,” Froggy said, staring at the spot where his son had entered the stands. “He’s making someone happy.”
Contact Jack Evans at [email protected] Follow @JackHEvans.