Hot Wheels

Into the strange, adrenaline-soaked world of the New York City Gotham Girls Roller Derby league.

It was 2:10 a.m. at the Seventh Avenue subway stop in Brooklyn. I was headed back to my Jersey City apartment from a party consisting of approximately 20 roller derby girls — 20 well-trained athletes who could break me using only their thumbs if they don’t like what I write in this article. That’s a lot of unfair pressure.

Two weeks earlier, I knew nothing about roller derby. I didn’t even know it was still around. All I knew was that it involved a skating rink and some players in roller skates falling on their asses. Then came Rollergirls, A&E’s docudrama about the all-girl Texas roller derby league. I found out that not only is roller derby still alive, it’s thriving.

During the Great Depression, Leo Seltzer watched as dozens of roller skaters circled a track at high speeds during an exhibition. When the skaters crashed, the spectators cheered, and Leo Seltzer saw a new sport for the American public. He gave it some rules and a name: roller derby.

Rollergirls in motion

After watching the first couple episodes of Rollergirls, I thought to myself, “Well, that was interesting but what is it like to actually be at a roller derby game?” After a quick trip to Googletown, I found out that my quiet, little New York City has its own all-female roller derby league: the Gotham Girls.

I learned a couple important things from the A&E show and the Gotham Girls Web site:

  • First off, everyone has a stage name, like Beyon Slay, Betty Deservedit, Baby Ruthless, or Carmen Monoxide. Even the referees have names like Hambone and Flying Squirrel.
  • Second, there are a bunch of rules and vocabulary to understand. A “bout” is a roller derby game that lasts about two hours. A “jam” is a round within a game that lasts up to two minutes. During a jam there are two types of players: “jammers” and “blockers.” A team scores points when a jammer passes members of the opposing team. At the same time, the blockers’ job is to block the opposing jammer and aid the team’s own jammer. Blockers can block with their body (i.e. rear, shoulder) but not with elbows or hands. All of this is done while the players are roller-skating on a basketball court-sized oval track at fairly dangerous speeds, slamming into each other, and crashing into the audience.
  • Third, there are four teams in the Gotham Girls league, representing different boroughs of New York City. There’s the Bronx Gridlock, outfitted in yellow checkered cab shirts and short shorts. Then there are the Brooklyn Bombshells with their 1940s-style sailorette uniforms. The Queens of Pain have their all-black, dominatrix-themed attire. And finally there’s the Manhattan Mayhem, who are uniformed with bright orange prison jumpsuits.

On July 22, I headed over towards Brooklyn, to the Schwartz Athletic Center at Long Island University. After receiving my press clearance from captain of the Bronx Gridlock team, Ginger Snaps, I entered the Schwartz Center’s gymnasium several hours before the bout. I was lucky enough to meet She Raw of the Bronx Gridlock, league’s youngest team. At 5’10″, She Raw towered over me with her tight yellow-checkered cab jump suit. While she strapped on pads like a modern-day gladiator, I asked her about life as a rollergirl:

She RawRob: How did you get your name? It’s a very cool name. Everybody from the 80s will remember it.

She Raw: It’s ’cause I’m a princess of raw power.

R: How long have you been a Gotham Girl?

S: I started in January and this will be my second bout.

R: I know that the Bronx Gridlock is the newest team of the group. Have you been with the Bronx Gridlock since its beginning?

S: Yeah. The Bronx Gridlock consists of about 12 new girls and two old skaters so we’re a fresh team.

R: How did you get into Gotham Girls and hear about the roller derby league?

S: I’ve always loved roller-skating and I just looked up online one day “roller derby in New York City,” and sure enough, Gotham Girls were holding tryouts. So, I strapped on my skates, went on, and got accepted. So here I am!

R: What is the best part of being a Gotham Girl?

S: I would have to say the camaraderie. I’ve never really had girlfriends before — most of my friends were guys. And here the women are just very down to earth, very supportive. There is no cattiness whatsoever, and I absolutely love them.

R: What is the toughest part about roller derby?

S: I guess the toughest part is not getting enough time to play. We’re not getting paid to do this, so you have to balance your economic interests with your passion to play.

R: On your first bout, did you get any injuries?

S: No, thank goodness! The only thing that happened to me was first time around, Surly Temple came and pushed me right into the lap of a photographer. But other than that I stayed on my feet, and I plan on doing so tonight as well.

The Bronx Gridlock warming upAfter thanking She Raw for her time, I sat down and took in the pre-bout activities. With only 20 minutes left until game time, the sold-out crowd poured into the gym. Girls from the Bronx Gridlock and their opponents, the Brooklyn Bombshells, took turns warming up by skating around the track. The DJ played a blood-pumping medley of metal, punk, and surf rock to get the crowd in the right mood. The Gotham Girls’ “jeerleaders” practiced their half-time dance number. Vendors sold Gotham Girls t-shirts, posters, and buttons.

The crowd screamed when the bout finally began, as the DJ kept blasting the music and the rollergirls started skating like demons. Just imagine walking to work on an incredibly crowded sidewalk — except instead of walking, you’re roller-skating at high speed. And all those people in your way are busy elbowing you in the gut or pushing you into walls or other pedestrians. Yeah, that’s what it’s like on a roller derby track.

A Gotham Girl crashed into a member of the crowd at least three times that night, and it seemed like the penalty box was packed to the limit during the entire bout . According to one referee there were 151 fouls committed within 60 minutes, on average. It was also incredibly intense to watch a favorite jammer break away from the swarm of opposing blockers and score a winning jam. (Brigitte Barhot, if you are reading this, I officially love you!)

At the end of the night, the lovely lady cabbies of the Bronx Gridlock knocked out the Brooklyn Bombshells with a score of 83 to 69 – an incredible victory for the league’s new kids on the block.

The Bronx Gridlock take on the Brooklyn Bombshells

The whole experience completely blew me away, and I can truly say I am a roller derby fan. The atmosphere was wild. The gameplay was playful yet intensely aggressive. All the girls played incredibly, and I should give a shoutout to Anne Phetamean, Kandy Kakes, and Pop Rox for being the top three leading foulers of the night. And of course congratulations to Bonnie Thunders, Pop Rox, and Sassy Hipsaw for being the top three high scorers of the bout.

For the afterparty in Brooklyn, the rollergirls of the Bronx Gridlock slipped out of their uniforms and into their “civilian” clothes, looking like average twentysomethings ready to party on a Saturday night. By day these women are law students, graphic designers, office workers, store managers, and waitresses working to pay those over-priced New York bills. But at night they transform into wheeled, armor-clad superheroes cheered by thousands of fans, relieving all the stress in their lives out on the track.

I just pray that nothing in this article pisses them off.

Article © 2006 by Rob Roan