Energy as tangible as an electric current charged through the Craneway Pavillion on Saturday night as people flowed into the glass-lined room by the bay. The cavernous space was converted into a derby stadium for the 2012 B.ay A.rea D.erby (B.A.D.) Girls Championship showdown between the San Francisco ShEvil Dead and the Richmond Wrecking Belles.
As fans entered, they were immediately presented with a sensory overload. Purchase B.A.D clothing and swag? Buy one-of-a-kind funky accessories retooled from bottle caps or other found pieces? Chow down on an organic vegetarian tamal, or go for the bacon-covered cupcakes? Whatever the choice, most people were washing it down with a cold beer.
The audience settled in on blankets in the “suicide section” (the area around the track partitioned off by a foot-high foam pad which offers minimal protection when fallen skaters careen into the audience) as well as on chairs around the outer side of the rink and in stadium seating for the VIPs.
With wind howling outside and fog rolling in deeper as the sun set, the two teams took turns prowling the track to warm up their muscles before the battle began. The clip-clopping of their skates was nearly drowned out by the deafening clapping and shouts from fans as their favorite skater glided past. Unlike some other team sports, roller derby encourages individuality and playfulness. As an example of this, each player sports an alter-ego double entendre derby name on the back of their jersey. Many of the skaters wore heavy makeup (black eye shadow and painted red lips on powder white skin), a throwback to the old-school derby days where it was more show and less athleticism. The Richmond Wrecking Belles wore blue and gold tanks that sharply contrasted the forest green bibs of the SF ShEvil Dead when the teams took to the track together.
For those who haven’t seen a “bout”—a game in derby tongue— here’s a down and dirty description: The bout is broken into two 30 minute halves. Each half is composed of two-minute stints called jams. Five players from each team start with one designated skater, known as a jammer, lining up in back. The first jammer past the pack takes position as the lead jammer and is the only one who can score points. Points are scored for each blocker she passes. Blockers are the other skaters on the rink. Their job is to use shoulders, hips and butts to prevent the other team’s jammer from passing and simultaneously make room for their jammer to get through. It gets rough, and the pace is fast, requiring a keen eye to catch a skater in violation (rolling outside the designated area or illegally blocking someone).
As the teams lined up—jostling one another for prime positions—each side badly wanted to win. With an undefeated season record, the SF ShEvil Dead were favored to win by derby followers, but the Richmond Wrecking Belles were a close second with just one loss.
Amongst cheers and jeers from the rambunctious crowd of hundreds, the SF ShEvil Dead took the lead quickly with jammer Lulu Lockjaw earning a four-point lead in less than a minute, while her blockers successfully kept the Wrecking Belle’s jammer at the back. Halfway through the first period, ShEvil Dead had opened up the lead 29 to 16.
A pair of commentators seated on a dais at the back of the track provided the audience with blow-by-blow explanations of the game. Between sips of beer, one of the commentators observed, “ShEvil Dead have a very strong defense game.” They also have a tiny-wiry jammer, Trixie Pixie, who is adept at sneaking under arms and slipping past blockers.
But by no means was this the end of the bout. Scores often go in to the hundreds at these events, and Richmond was just getting started. Before the first half was over, Wrecking Belles’ jammer Chantilly Mace tacked on over twenty points, bringing Richmond into the lead.
For the rest of the first half, and well into the second, the two teams pushed, shoved and in some cases clawed their way ahead. Throughout most of the second half they stayed just a few points apart. At one point an overcome fan jumped out of the stands onto the floor behind the suicide section and started yelling while banging on a drum to release some of her pent up tension. Most likely, this spectacle would annoy crowds at a traditional sports game, but at the roller derby bout the people around her just laughed and cheered along to her rhythm.
With two minutes left in the bout, ShEvil Dead was ahead 141 to 138, but during the last two minutes, the Wrecking Belles’ Kitt Turbo and Chantilly Mace tag-teamed as jammers and brought Richmond to a tenuous lead—142 to 141.
In the last thirty seconds the Wrecking Belle’s blockers thrust themselves in front of the ShEvil Dead skaters, and Mace snuck by to widen the lead to 145 over 141. Instead of letting the last twenty seconds of the game run out by staying in the lead jammer position, Mace made a questionable move and indicated to the judges that she was calling off the jam early. Lead jammers can call off a jam before two minutes are up by tapping their hands to their hips repeatedly. If she had allowed her team the time to keep the ShEvil Dead jammer at the back for the remaining seconds, the Wrecking Belles would likely have won without issue. Instead, both teams had to line up again to start a new jam with twenty seconds left on the clock.
Twenty seconds is enough time for a jammer to close a four-point lead. In fact, it’s about the same amount of time it took the ShEvil Deads to score their first four points.
The teams quickly re-set for the last jam and a couple of Mace’s teammates came over to give her a reassuring hug and pat on the back as she hung her head, and then squared her shoulders. The whistle blew and ShEvil Dead’s jammer took the lead. Seconds later, one whistle blew—followed by another indicating the end of the bout. Unclear about who had won and what had happened during those last few seconds, the audience waited in suspense.
Referees converged to review the scores, and determined that ShEvil Dead’s jammer had “cut the track,” meaning she illegally re-entered the track in front of on an opposing blocker after going out of bounds and therefore did not score any points.
“Richmond Wrecking Belles win!” shouted the commentator.
Audience members jumped to their feet, screaming and clapping they poured onto the rink, making a circle around the boundary line to high five the Wrecking Belles. That sporting event favorite, Queen’s “We are the Champions,” boomed out of the speakers as the Richmond Wrecking Belles skated their last loop around the rink—and they are the champions, this year.