Roller derby's Texas-sized comeback.

Dispatches from the dark corners of sports.
May 13 2004 2:24 PM

Lone Star Skate

Roller derby makes a Texas-sized comeback.

Illustration by Keith Seidel

On a recent visit to the roller derby, I discovered my all-time favorite sports cheer.

It's a Sunday night in Austin, Texas, and the Hotrod Honeys are taking on the Hustlers in a low-slung roller rink behind a car dealership. Midway through the first period, the Honeys' manager—a rockabilly greaser dressed in coveralls and waving a wrench—turns to the crowd. Following his cue, we raise our arms, spread our hands in devil-finger formation, and salute: "Faster! Faster! Kill! Kill! Kill! Faster! Faster! Kill! Kill! Kill!"

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It's no mistake that the chant evokes Russ Meyer's seminal girls-with-guns flick Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! If the lecherous Meyer invented a sport, it would look a lot like this—part girl-on-girl athletic competition, part burlesque show, and all covered with a thick coating of hipster irony. Austin's roller derby is a modish variation of the classically cheesy spectacle on wheels that won a cult following in the Bay Area during the '60s and on Saturday-morning television in the '80s. Austin's derby revival got started in the summer of 2002 and currently features two independent leagues, the Texas Rollergirls and the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls, which share nearly identical aesthetics, rules, and shtick.

Tonight, the Hustlers, the Hotrod Honeys, the Honky Tonk Heartbreakers, and the Hell Marys are playing in the Texas Rollergirls' monthly double-header. Thin luminescent tubes that look like garden hoses stuffed with Christmas lights are taped down in the middle of the rink, defining the edges of a flat, oval track. Beneath the flashing disco lights and the jumbo, sequined roller skate that hangs from the ceiling, hundreds of denim-wearing fans sit cross-legged, sating themselves on Lone Star beer and Frito pies.

Collectively, they look more like the students in a graduate-level Kierkegaard seminar than a bunch of rowdy sports fans. Before the games and during halftime, Austin rock and punk bands bang out sets on a side stage. Most of the too-cool-to-drool fans ignore them.

The crowd keeps its eyes on the track for good reason: As one of the few sports to celebrate the synergy between fishnet stockings and skating really fast, the Austin roller derby is understandably stocked with heavily pierced fashionistas. In the first game, the Hustlers, decked out in purple skirts or short shorts and matching tops with butterfly collars, jump out to an early lead. Like football, roller derby alternates between bursts of action and lulls in which teams shuffle players in and out. At the start of each "jam" four skaters from each team form a pack. A whistle sounds, and all eight women start skating counter-clockwise at a decent pace. Each team keeps one "jammer" behind the pack. When a second whistle blows, the two jammers take off and try to catch up with the rest of the formation. For each opponent the jammer laps—whileavoiding a ceaseless onslaught of pushing, shoving, and hip checks—she scores one point for her team. The game is broken into four 14-minute periods, with each jam lasting a maximum of two minutes.

"Dinah-Mite," a muscular dynamo with broad shoulders and blond pigtails, is dominating as the Hustlers' jammer, whipping in and out of traffic and racking up points. Last year's league MVP not only accelerates faster than the other skaters but has better side-to-side agility thanks to her superior athletic stance (knees bent, butt out, head on a swivel). Despite relentless jockeying, the Honeys can't stop her. Then, late in the second half, a petite Honey named "Pixie" times a perfect hit on the alpha skater. Just one second before, Dinah-Mite had decked a Honey, leaving her momentarily unaware of her flank. Before Dinah-Mite can turn her head, Pixie crashes into her at a dead sprint, and, for once, Dinah-Mite goes down. The crowd goes nuts.

The finer points of the game can sometimes be hard to follow. Blockers fall down. The pack breaks up. The jammers get out of sync. The only play-by-play analysis comes from a woman dressed like a geisha who stands track-side with a microphone. Despite her commentary—and perhaps because of it—I keep losing track of the score. In close matches, this can be a bit of a nightmare, but tonight the Hustlers cruise to an easy 61-47 victory. For the most part, I forget about the score, keep my eye on the jammers, and hope I don't miss any monster hits.

The competition is real, but most of the fighting isn't. When promoter Leo Seltzer invented roller derby in 1935 as a ploy to lure fans to the Chicago Coliseum, fighting wasn't part of the game. But the sport soon evolved according to its inventor's basic philosophy: Whatever the crowd wants, the crowd gets. Everyone liked the brawls. Seltzer obliged.

By the time the Seltzer brand of derby folded in 1973, outsized horseplay couldn't keep fans interested in the wilted competition. Two years later, James Caan starred in the movie Rollerball, a movie about a not-too-distant future in which all the world's violence is channeled into a roller derby knockoff. (Tagline: "In the future there will be no war. There will only be Rollerball.") Roller derby's progression from sport to spectacle to dystopian sci-fi premise was complete.

The last notable roller-derby launch, 1998's TNN show RollerJam, met a familiar fate. According to this history of roller derby, RollerJam "hired a number of nationally ranked speed skaters and instead of taking advantage of this wealth of talent, they highlighted actors and non-talented, overweight skaters to perpetuate a pre-fabricated storyline. RollerJam became a spectacle of bad taste." After two years, it folded.

The Austin roller derby has no shortage of self-conscious zaniness: An endless parade of costumed characters, from the greaser, to the geisha, to a purple-clad pimp, stalk the sidelines all match long. And if you give women named "Kitty Kitty Bang Bang" and "Vendetta Von Dutch" mouth guards and elbow pads, a catfight is sure to follow. Several times a match, play deteriorates into a theatrical battle royal. Just before the end of the first period, two Honeys pancake a Hustler. When all three tumble to the ground, a Hustler races in at full speed and lands a flying body check on one of the supine blockers. It's a major cheap shot. The benches clear. The fans in front of me leap to their feet, jeering. I'm left scrambling for a better view.

Felix Gillette is a reporter for the Columbia Journalism Review's CJR Daily.

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