Spend any time on the set of The Learning Channel’s “Junkyard Wars,” and the confidence builds: Perhaps I too have the ingenuity to fashion a submarine from a scrap Chevy V6 or a monster truck from tractor wheels. I don’t, of course; nor do most viewers. But by striking the core of your inner MacGyver, the Emmy-nominated show has become a mainstream hit, drawing roughly 1.4 million viewers a week.
I’m here as taping begins for the show’s eighth season. Today’s challenge: From the mountains of cars, trucks, and tires (in what producers admit is an unusually well-stocked junkyard), build a vehicle that carries all four team members-and can be disassembled and shoved into no more than four suitcases. For inspiration, the famous Mazda Suitcase Car, circa 1991, sits nearby. Tomorrow, the teams will race their vehicles through a course styled after a Cold War border crossing. To the victors goes a ticket to the next round.
Top priority for the Wenches with Wrenches-four women who met on the drag racing circuit-is an electric motor to power what will soon be a three-wheeled vehicle with a folding metal frame. A scuff-drive system, the driveshaft sitting directly on the back wheel, will get them from point A to B, and a fire extinguisher will supply added thrust. “Our design is something you might see on the street,” explains team advisor Hanz Sholz. “Theirs is a bit more whimsical.”
He is referring to the centipede-styled contraption taking shape in the adjacent Custom Cruisers shop. It’s a prime example of thinking inside the box: The suitcases flip open, turn over, deploy shopping cart wheels, and hook together in a sort of wagon train. Three chainsaw engines and a scuff drive get it going.
Judge Doug Malewicki, the creator of the car-eating Robosaurus that’s been making the rounds at monster truck shows, is a bit skeptical. The Wenches’ electric motor might not provide enough oomph, he predicts, and the Cruisers’ centipede could easily jackknife. “I’ll personally buy the champagne if either one crosses the finish line.”
One will. In this game of blood, sweat, and gears, someone always wins.