It’s not every day someone drops me a line asking if I want to watch a feature-length documentary about figure-eight bus racing, but those are the kinds of messages I can’t answer quickly enough. Naturally, my first response was to drop important things I was working on so I could watch the advance copy of Smash: Motorized Mayhem. The documentary retells the story of Crash-A-Rama, a night of unmitigated automotive carnage at Orlando Speed World that draws huge crowds and peaks with drivers in retired school buses beating on each other.
As you might imagine, assembling more than a dozen running school buses to put together the headlining event is a monumental task; Smash details the race preparation of promoter Don Nerone and his chief mechanic (and driver) Chuck Rush along with the lives of bus racers Butch Pierce and Ben Craft–who drives a school-district bus for his day job. There’s more here than just buses being built and crashed; filmmaker Kevin J. Burroughs chronicles the stories of the people who make a hobby of racing (and crashing) 15,000-pound buses with narration by actor W. Earl Brown (notably of Deadwood). You can watch Smash: Motorized Mayhem as of March 21.
A short while before the film’s release, we caught up with Chuck Rush, the bus racer nicknamed “Junk Yard Dog,” to talk school bus racing.
Roadkill: How did you end up racing buses?
Chuck Rush: It started when I was about 16 years old. I worked in a local salvage yard and they had demolition derbies at the local short track. I got involved with those when I was very young and became good at it. I was a small guy so I wasn’t good at baseball or football or things like that, but as soon as you put me behind the steering wheel, I could run with everybody. My demolition derby career kept me involved in that kind of racing and then when Orlando Speed World decided to do their first school bus race, they asked me if I would help them. It kind of snowballed from being a demo derby driver to helping them work on the buses. Now I actually own the company, Crash-A-Rama, that the bus races are a part of.
RK: Having worked in a junkyard and having built demolition derby cars, you were rebuilding the car constantly. That has to be a particularly useful skillset for preparing the buses on a short time scale.
Rush: It was even better than that because I was building [derby cars] on no budget. I had to learn to use what I had and rig what I had back together to make it work. It definitely has come in handy through the bus racing, that’s for sure.
RK: How long before a Crash-A-Rama do you start preparing the buses? Is it year-round?
Rush: We do anywhere from six to 12 shows a year, depending on what the the tracks are doing. Generally, my wife and I will go in and start working anywhere from three to four weeks out. We’ll have to rebuild somewhere around 15 buses in that timeframe.
RK: One of the things the film touched on was the challenge of even finding buses. How hard is it getting to find them and how much stress is that to keep the ones you have running?
Rush: Really, it’s not hard to find them. It’s hard to find them affordably. Back when we first started doing this, we paid around $300 a bus. Now I’m paying $2,000 to $3,000 per bus. Throughout the country, I own roughly 45 or 50 school buses so you’re looking $125,000 to $150,000 in buses. Because they are so expensive, we have gotten to the point now where I might wreck this one and knock the front end off it, but we still keep it because the next one we might need the back-end parts.
We constantly recycle, recycle, recycle until there’s just nothing left of it. I’m lucky I have a few connections in finding new ones, but they’re still costing us. Then we invest another $1,200 to $1,500 to bring it up to what we need. I’ve got some buses that have probably 15 or 20 races on them.
RK: What is it you try to get across to the audience? What is that draws people to it?
Rush: The good thing about Crash-A-Rama when it comes to your fanbase is that you don’t have to be a typical NASCAR or race car fan. Racing fans are such a small minority, but everybody loves to see carnage and destruction. We’re very lucky that a good 60 percent of our fans are repeat customers. When I’m trying to get to new people, what we try and do is let them know this is all-out carnage. This isn’t racing, this is wrecking. It’s totally legalized road rage.
RK: To that end, what do you look for in somebody that you’re going to put in a bus?
Rush: Somebody that’s not scared, but smart enough to know they should be, if that makes sense.
Rush: We look for somebody who has some sort of motorsport experience, whether it be stock cars or whatever they’ve raced in before. We’ve got a couple of monster truck guys who have come out and raced with us. Someone who wants to put on a show is the second-most important thing. They don’t really care if they go home winning; they just want to make the crowd cheer. They’re not scared to split the needle going through the X, they’re there for the fans and to put a show on.
RK: When you’re racing in the bus, is that something that’s going through your head? For example, “Should I take this risk because I know it’ll be entertaining?”
Rush: Yes and no. I’m sure it’s a subconscious thought, but if you watch the film, you’ll notice from the footage of me driving something I had never noticed before: My facial expressions never changed. Buses could be hitting square into the side of me and they never changed. So yeah, I was cognizant that I wanted to put a show on, but for me, it was about walking right on the line and pushing past it. I’ve been hit several times and thought afterward, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t have done that.” At the time, if I had five feet, in my mind I had 25 feet.
RK: How different is a bus from a normal oval car and in what way?
Rush: Well, they don’t handle really well. They’re not made to go into a corner at 75 miles per hour. Obviously, they’re heavier and don’t have the instant takeoff of, say, a stock car that pushes you back into your seat. But they are similar in that once you realize the handling characteristics of it, you already know what the bus is going to do going into the corner, you’re prepared to correct it. No matter what you’re racing, each vehicle has its own characteristic, its own personality.
RK: The movie shows your relationship with [Crash-A-Rama creator and Rush’s former business partner] Don Nerone (above). Can you talk a little about that? Some of what was shown in the film was a little bit stressed while you were in the last stretch before the race.
Rush: We have a love-hate relationship. We both have passion in what we do so neither one of us would give, which ultimately led to our downfall. We had the same goals, but we had different ideas on how to get there. Personally, Don is a very dear friend of mine; he was definitely like a father to me and I love him dearly. I owe my entire career to him. But we did have our moments just like any relationship does. It was almost like a marriage; we had the same common goal in mind, but when stress gets to you, you take it out on those closest to you. So that’s a lot of what you’ll see [in the movie].
RK: What can see expect from Crash-A-Rama in the future?
Rush: The future of Crash-A-Rama is definitely bright. We’re looking at going into more venues in the country and possibly expanding north into Canada. We’re trying some new events this year. Our first show is at Lake Erie Speedway on Memorial Day Weekend.
Then we head over to Holland Speedway in Buffalo on June 17. We’re doing a new event there called a double-decker race, which basically is you take a demolition derby-style car on the bottom, then you take a car body with nothing but a driver’s seat and a gas pedal on top. So you have a driver on top that controls the gas pedal while the driver on the bottom has the steering wheel and brakes. There’s no communication between each other.
RK: That sounds awesome.
Rush: I’m excited to see how it’s gonna play out. I think it’s gonna be funny.
Learn more about Smash: Motorized Mayhem on the film’s Facebook page and on the XLrator Media Facebook page. The film will be available on iTunes and Apple TV on March 21, 2017. Find out more about Crash-A-Rama, including show dates this year, right here.