A driver at the wheel holds his gloves together to form the word 'Merica before the demolition derby race. Fairground rides are visible in the background.
NNSA’s Chris Landers is pumped for America before beginning his first demolition derby.

Like many, NNSA’s Chris Landers confronts gridlock, avoids collisions, and has worked on projects that have run out of gas. Few of us, however, get the opportunity to smash all those problems in one high-octane evening.

A man wearing a helmet sits at the wheel of a car staring.
NNSA’s Chris Landers gets himself “derby ready.”

But Landers did. Because on that night last month, he drove in a demolition derby, a symphony of chaos, adrenaline, and engineering greatness.

“I used to daydream about unleashing all restraints and letting my vehicle loose,” said Landers, a Supervisory Foreign Affairs Specialist in NNSA’s Office of Material Management and Minimization. By day, he is the Director of the Office of Conversion, which modifies research reactors from the use of weapons-usable material to non-weapons usable material. “The pandemic really fueled my passion, I needed an outlet. Once we started work on the car, all I could see was that green flag to start the derby.”

But the road to the demolition derby at the Great Frederick Fair in Maryland was a long one.

When the dust finally settles, and the wreckage remains,

We’ll look back on this madness, with both joy and pains,

For in the heart of the derby, where our courage won’t deny,

We found our inner warriors, reaching for the sky.

Chris Landers
NNSA Supervisory Foreign Affairs Specialist

First, Landers had to buy the right car. Not only did it need to fit his budget, but it needed to go the distance. After confirming his vehicle was made in America, he chose a mid-sized Honda Accord and named it Tally.

“Strong and agile. Not too big, not too small. And plenty of trunk space,” Landers said.

Next, he and his family had to make Tally “derby ready.” That meant removing anything plastic, glass, or flammable; pulling non-essential equipment; and relocating others (such as moving the car battery to the passenger seat).

“It took weeks, but my family was revved up about the process,” Landers said. “At one point, while I was removing a window from Tally, I showed my teenage daughter how to do it. Before I could finish mine, she had already removed the next one by herself. We’ll make a grease monkey out of her yet!”

Finally, he had to learn demolition derby’s rules of the road:

  • Obey the flags that start and stop the action.
  • Don’t get out of your car.
  • Don’t crash into a driver’s side door on purpose.
  • Just keep hitting! Only one will survive.

When the day of reckoning came, Landers’ “TeamL pit crew” – his family and NNSA co-workers – ventured to the fairgrounds’ grandstand to cheer, along with 2,000 other excited viewers.

Jeff Chamberlain, Landers’ boss, put it compactly: “Chris is really driven. Whether it’s nuclear security or his car, he keeps things moving.”

Once he saw the green flag wave, Landers and Tally roared for victory. “BOOMSAUCE!!!!! Let’s goooo!” he howled, and slammed the accelerator to the floor.

Young people cheer in grandstands.
Chris Landers family and NNSA co-workers journeyed to the Great Frederick Fair in Maryland to watch the demolition derby.

At first, it went well. One, two, three cars gone in the first few minutes. Landers’ strategy, involving the reverse gear, the accelerator, and Tally’s durable trunk, was working to bash and crash the way to glory. The amateur was surprising the other drivers. He drove hard, colliding, evading and surviving, dodging fires, smoke, and collisions. Nothing was stopping Landers and his trusty Tally!

As the derby neared its end, only three cars remained. Landers collided with another vehicle and saw his chance. Accelerating and taking aim as he streaked across the arena, he braced, and a colossal crash ensued. The crowd roared; Landers’ opponent was stunned; then his foe's helmet spun on his head. A safety flag was raised. As officials attended to the driver, the violent mashing of metal finally took its toll on Tally’s electrical system and she went dead. There would be no return from the safety stop. Landers and Tally were done. In the end the valiant steed gave her all and earned him the bronze.

“Third place!” he exclaimed as he surveyed his disabled vehicle after the race. “Thank you Tally for a great adventure.”

Then almost whispering, he added, “Until next year.”

Later, Landers expressed his feelings as a poem.

When the dust finally settles, and the wreckage remains,
We’ll look back on this madness, with both joy and pains,
For in the heart of the derby, where our courage won’t deny,
We found our inner warriors, reaching for the sky.

A car on a trailer.
Chris Landers’ car Tally before preparing her for the demolition derby.
A wrecked car on a demolition derby track.
Chris Landers’ car Tally after the demolition derby.