Hell on Wheels

'Two women skaters got on a roller derby chat line and were fighting back and forth," says Dan Ferrari, owner of American Roller Skating Derby. "One was saying she was the queen of roller derby, and the other was saying, 'We all need to work together, there's not one queen,' and the [first one] said, 'I'm the best skater,' and the [second one] said, 'We'll see it out on the track.' When they got out on the track, the referees couldn't pull them apart. Tempers do fly." On Wednesday, December 6, the American Roller Skating Derby is hosting open tryouts for both men and women for its new professional team, the Southern California Fire Birds. The team faces the veteran Bay Bombers on February 3.

"You have to relearn to skate when you skate on a banked track, which is 52 feet wide by 96 feet long." The track, which takes at least six hours to construct in a skating rink and about three hours to break down, is made of Masonite. "It's made for speed and flexibility," says Ferrari. "You can get up to 45 miles per hour on it."

To have a shot at getting on the team, you must have two things: the ability to skate and personality. "Roller derby is a rough game. It requires speed and blocking and endurance. We're looking for somebody who would go out and play football and ice hockey." During tryouts, would-be players are tested on their speed, endurance, and ability to navigate around obstacles.

A player's position on the team in this league is designated by the helmet: jammers, or offensive players, wear striped helmets, blockers (defensive players) wear solid helmets, and pivot skaters (who switch between jamming and blocking) wear black helmets. Raquel Welch's character in the movie Kansas City Bomber was a jammer.

Players skate around the track counterclockwise, building up speed, until the referee blows the whistle to signal the beginning of a jam. The jam lasts for 60 seconds, during which the jammers (who have gained a one-lap lead over the rest of the players) attempt to advance past the pack of skaters. The team receives one point for each opposing team member a jammer is able to pass.

"The teams can score at the same time," explains Ferrari. "They will send back blockers, big strong people, to stop [the other team] from scoring." As in ice hockey, illegal blocking earns penalties for the offending team. "Legal blocking is with a knee or an elbow. But if you turn around, reverse, and do a shoulder block or trip someone, that's illegal."

It is common for blockers to assist their team's jammers by "whipping" them forward. A single whip is when one player grabs the jammer's hands to propel the skater forward, and a double whip is when two players throw the jammer forward.

As in any other contact sport, injuries occur. During a game in Oakland on November 9, Bay Bomber Dave Martinez broke his left leg. "Once you've had extensive training, you learn how to go into the rail. [Dave] misjudged it, he led with his foot instead of his body, and his skate hooked in between the kick rail [or bottom rail] and the track. It caught and broke his leg right under the knee." Martinez underwent surgery for three hours and is not expected to be able to play again for eight months.

The strangest injury Ferrari can recall occurred six years ago. "[A jammer] was coming into the score, and an opponent tried to block him out. One of [the jammer's] members tried to help, but when the teammate jumped up to try to get the blocker, the [blocker] sidestepped and [the teammate] got his own player." After the incident, the wounded jammer called Ferrari into the dressing room. "The bolt of [his teammate's] skate had pierced his penis, and there was a two-inch gash with blood squirting out."

The general manager of the Bay Bombers, who goes by the name Icebox, has a take-down move that has been dubbed "the deep freeze." According to Ferrari, the deep freeze is when a six foot five, 400-plus-pound man "goes flying in the air and jumps on somebody to try and smash them." One player went home with two broken ribs as a result of this maneuver.

Ferrari attended his first roller derby game in 1958 when he was two years old. He loves the sport, but he has never had any interest in being on the track. "I don't mean to insult roller skaters, but I think they're crazy to go out there. I would never subject my body to it. But they love it; it's in their system." -- Barbarella

Southern California Fire Birds Tryouts Wednesday, December 6 8 p.m. Ups N Down Roller Skating Rink 862 N. Broadway Escondido Cost: Free Info: 760-739-0897 or www.freewebs.com/bombersrollerderby

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