Hell on Wheels

Only four Roller Derby tracks remain on the North American continent. One of them squats in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse just west of I-95 and south of Cypress Creek Boulevard. A tall, talkative entrepreneur named Patrick Schaefer bought the 60-by-90-foot oval last year for $12,000 from the San Francisco Bay Bombers, a defunct skating team that for decades was a household name to millions of Americans. Then he trucked the blood-spattered, sweat-stained relic across the country and installed it in northwest Broward without fully considering the fact that his warehouse has no air conditioning.

"Because of the heat in here, we have a real cramping problem," says Andrea Franklin, one of two coaches hired by Schaefer to teach recruits the fine points of kicking, blocking, punching, biting, and hair-pulling -- and of course, the high-speed, close-quarters coordination required to skate on a banked track. The housewives, landscapers, schoolteachers, and computer software salesmen who show up for combat twice a week employ in-line skates, not the bulky quad skates of the '50s. Schaefer has altered and simplified some of the Derby rules, and named his outfit RollerSport Challenge to avoid trademark trouble. But otherwise it's the old Roller Derby, which Schaefer fervently believes is ripe for resurrection.

Before tonight's 90-minute practice is done, Franklin will have on her hands worse problems than muscle cramps. She'll be dripping blood from her right knee; Gail Perfect, another top skater, will need stitches to close a gash in her chin; and referee David Alfin will wind up in a neck brace. At one point skaters James Rinaldi, Tony Skye, and Rob Todoroff gleefully duke it out at the top of a curve and shatter a wooden rail at the bottom edge of the track.

Outside, a thunderstorm turns the parking lot into a pond. Inside, Desmond Kameka, the 40-year-old men's coach, teaches "the whip," a technique whereby one skater accelerates another through the banked curve by grabbing his or her arm and yanking. "Sensation! Sensation!" Kameka screams like a Broadway director. "Ya gotta make it look good! Let's see you sell it, people!"

Schaefer's teams -- the Star Riders, the Track Force, the South Florida Smugglers -- learn how to stomp loudly on the Masonite track when making elbow or knee blocks; how to produce flamboyant, exaggerated reactions when they get bashed in the straightaway or blocked in the turns. In short, they're learning Schaefer's favorite mantra: entertainment value.

In a typical scrimmage, two opposing teams in star-spangled uniforms and shiny metallic helmets skate for four six-minute periods; one member of each team, the "jammer" identified by a silver helmet, tries to lap the pack and make it past an enemy "target skater" to score a point. Each five-person team comprises both women and men.

"The guys are the biggest hams," says Schaefer's wife, Rita. "They got a taste of show biz at the first event, and now it's in their blood."

Rick Mure, a lean landscaper with a tattoo on his arm depicting God casting the Devil into Hell, is well-known to security guards at Pembroke Pines shopping malls for his habit of sneaking into asphalted areas late at night to practice trick skating. He also boxes, kickboxes, and plays roller hockey. But the fledgling Derby is his current passion.

"I kinda fell into it, that kind of mode, of scrapping with people, hitting 'em," he explains. "That's the kinda kid I am, from the school of hard knocks. What I lack in skill I have to make up for in aggressiveness on the track. And that's what I like."

Schaefer, the man who would reinvent Roller Derby, looks out of place in a collared shirt and cowboy boots and confesses he's never been on skates himself. He also admits he's more interested in theater than sport -- but that proclivity is more than a simple matter of taste. A few years ago in Tampa, Schaefer launched the World Roller Federation, which relied on genuine competition with a minimum of buffoonery. It bombed.

"The only time we got a fan pop -- that's what it's called -- was when someone got knocked over a rail, or tempers flared," Schaefer recalls. "That's when people cheered, crumpled their Coke cups and threw 'em. So we said, this whole thing has been a dumb idea. If people want to see skating, let 'em go down to South Beach. We're gonna give 'em wrestling on wheels."

So in addition to plenty of contrived fisticuffs, Schaefer is developing cartoonish "characters" whose evolving antics will rivet fans through game after game. There's Sabrina Wentworth, a villainous sexpot widow who plots a hostile takeover of RollerSport Challenge. There's the Preacher, a taciturn giant who will show up toting the Scriptures and periodically smack skaters over the head with them. ("The Bible-beaters will go apeshit!" Schaefer predicts.) Kameka's girlfriend, skater Debbie Klammer, shows up at some practices in pigtails and tinted granny glasses. Schaefer explains: "What we do over a series of games is we gradually turn her from this little, hicky country girl with pigtails -- the farmer's daughter -- into this gorgeous, sexy sophisticate. I want guys to pay 26 bucks to sit trackside and hope she sweats on 'em."

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Sean Rowe