It’s tough and fast, with people named “Diesel Trix,” “Criminal,” and “Bad Panda.” There’re helmets, knee and elbow pads, EMTs on the premises—and lots of make-up. But don’t be fooled. This is not the hard livin’, bone crushin’ rollergirls of the 1970s. This is a sport that is skyrocketing in popularity in our area and in the country, and these ladies, Tioga County’s Dirt Road Dears, are warm ambassadors to the world of flat- track roller derby.
The current surge in women’s roller derby began in 2001-2002, and, a couple of years ago, says Coach Buck Snort, a group from Potter and Tioga counties attended the North East Convention of flat track roller derby in Rhode Island. There they mingled with thousands of people involved in the sport, including trainers who were largely from Team USA Roller Derby. From that trip, two skaters, one Non-Skating Official (NSO), and the coach received the training needed to come home and train the Dirt Road Dears. For the first season, without a rink, they played only on the road. But this year they call Mansfield University’s Kelchner Arena home. “A roller derby track,” explains Annette Miller, manager of Dirt Road Dears, “takes up a lot of room.”
The track is a simple oval inside an oval. The inside oval is the track for the skaters, and the outside is for the referees (the “zebras”—who have their own colorful nicknames). One skater for each team is the jammer, the skater that earns points for her team by passing opposing skaters. The other four skaters on the team are blockers, and they both try to help their jammer through the “pack” and try to stop the other jammer. It’s easy for the refs and the audience to spot the jammers, as they sport a large star on their helmets. Skaters are stopped, pushed out of bounds, and can end up flat on the floor as the pack rumbles. But the flat track style avoids the crushing against the boards and the possibility of mangling pile-ups common with rink roller derby. Most spectators are away from the action on a straightaway part of the track, but some people choose to sit by the edge of the outside track on the corners—the “crash seating.”
The action is fast and furious. Skaters pushed out must re-enter the oval behind all the other skaters. The penalty for trying to push back in is thirty seconds in the penalty box, also known as the “sin bin.” Grabbing, blocking below the thighs, back blows, and fighting will get a skater time in the sin bin, and seven trips to the bin ejects a player from not only the oval, but the arena. Each “jam” is at most two minutes in length, but the lead jammer can call time before that, and by calling time early keep the opposing jammer from scoring points for her team. As Diesel Trix says, “It’s the coolest sport ever!”
And just like the “soiled doves” of the Wild West, the roller derby “girls” all have hearts of pure gold. Every job is completely volunteer, and the skaters, referees, NSOs, managers, and coaches spend countless hours training, practicing, and raising money to hold the bouts. Even the EMTs donate their time. Many of the skaters and officials will travel hours to make certain that a club has enough people to hold the match. To skate for the team a woman must be able to do a lap in under thirteen seconds and twenty-seven laps in five minutes. It takes stamina, speed, and skills to make it.
Perhaps the best example of the camaraderie in this sport is the story of “Tuff Mama,” who skated for the Parlor City Tricks (Broome County) against the Dirt Road Dears. Her home team is the Lunachicks of Geneva, New York, and she was diagnosed with cancer last year. She skates every match she can, and the entire league supports her. Her parents were on the crash seats in Mansfield in July, cheering her on. And the announcer for the Dirt Road Dears noted every jam that she was in. Her parents say that the skating keeps her spirits up, as she received chemotherapy every day for a year.
For all the skaters, many of them young mothers, the entire family comes out, supports the team, and watches as Mom becomes a fearless, tough competitor. Then, everyone goes out to the after-party and enjoys the special bond that roller derby creates.
The last home bout for the Dirt Road Dears is August 15 at Kelchner Arena, Mansfield University. Doors open at 5 p.m., and the Dears will start hunting their next prey, the Lunachicks, at 6 p.m. Tickets are $10 from any Dirt Road Dear, or call Annette Miller at 570-376-4692 to reserve tickets ($12 at the door).