There's a slogan you see a lot of these days in Austin: "Don't Mess With Texas Women." Though that phrase doesn't refer to derby, exactly, it certainly applies: It came to mind often as I spent a weekend going deep with the women of the Texas Banked Track Roller Derby, or TXRD, arguably the sport's toughest league. My roller-derby deep dive started in a sweltering warehouse on the south side, where I found "derby girls" slamming each other against rails, throwing elbows, and hip-checking each other while skating around a banked wooden track. (And that was just practice.)
You're probably aware of roller derby's rebirth – maybe you've even watched it live, since there are hundreds of leagues worldwide, all sprung from a revival that happened here in Austin, beginning in the year 2000. It was then that a local musician named "Devil Dan" Policarpo recruited women for a what he thought would be a madcap spectacle on wheels. After a dispute about money, Devil Dan split town, and the team captains took control of TXRD and shaped it into the brawling, postfeminist party on wheels that it still is, over a decade and a half later.
In the last few years, flat track leagues have led the sport's surging growth – there’s even one here in Austin – but TXRD plays on a banked wooden track, set up and taken down by volunteers at every match. Leagues that play on banked tracks are a kind of homage to roller derby's roots in the 1930s and '40s. Since the banked track heightens gravity's effect on the game's play, it brings bigger hits, harder bumps and messier wrecks.
"They are a bitch to build and a bitch to maintain, but the skating on a banked track is the old-school, bad ass way to do it," says Dusty Doublewide, a blocker and the team captain of the Rhinestone Cowgirls (Doublewide, like all roller girls, uses a "derby name.") "[Playing on a banked track] looks cooler, and when you hit hard, people fly through the rail. I still want to see that, even after skating for seven years."
Doublewide's long career is a kind of anomaly: Most derby careers are half that, as concussions, hematomas, blown-out knees and busted lips take a toll. The day after I observed a practice, I watch one retired player named Str8 Jacket give a private lesson to a rank newbie. This first lesson covered the sport's most important move to master – falling correctly. Always forward, never backward, to prevent a busted tailbone, I learned. And tuck in your fingers, lest they meet another skater's wheels. "If you're not ready for the sport physically, you'll know, because you'll get injured or worse, broken," she explained.
It is late in the TXRD season, and flying elbows have taken their toll. Saturday night's big bout featured the Putas del Fuego (whores of fire) and the Holy Rollers, who fielded a lineup heavy on replacement players, since their roster was decimated by injuries. In front of a raucous convention center crowd of nearly a thousand, the Rollers kept the game tight, before the Putas finally pulled ahead, thanks in part to quick passing by Knockout, the Putas' jammer (a point-scoring position.)
Before the game, Knockout shares with me the reason she dedicates over 20 hours to the league a week: "We're owned and operated and run by women. I've never really been in a space with that freedom. You just don't feel like you're being judged for anything," she says. On a match day, she adds: "You get to forget about everything for two hours and you hit your friends – and then you hug it out and then you go drink together."