Jam Session

Our round on roller derby just zoomed by all your blockers

Published February 16, 2024

Eric Keihl is the managing editor for Questionist’s parent company, Geeks Who Drink. Each week, he will accept a reader challenge to write a entire, quiz-ready trivia round on some tricky or obscure subject. You can challenge Eric here.

This week’s theme is roller derby, suggested by Sarah “Sarah-Tonin” McNair-Wilson at the Irish Rover in Denver. Thanks, Sarah!

Trivia question! Who was the highest-paid female athlete of the 1960s and ‘70s? The answer isn’t Billie Jean King or Wilma Rudolph–legends though they were–but roller derby queen Joan “The Blonde Bomber” Weston. And boy did she deserve it. 

Born in Southern California in 1935, Weston was one of those Babe Didrikson-type superwomen who killed at all things athletic: Playing softball at St. Mary’s College, she once batted .730 for a season and hit eight home runs in a single game. She would’ve hit nine, but the nuns thought eight was quite enough and literally threatened to excommunicate her.  In 1962 she won a canoeing championship in Hawaii. She regularly surfed without a wetsuit. In her later years she became a beast at volleyball and golf, and she once jumped off a waterfall that had once been used for human sacrifices, just because somebody dared her to.

But she made her greatest mark in roller derby, where her hard-bumping style quickly elevated her to pivot (the most technically demanding position) for the world’s best team, the San Francisco Bay Bombers. In the ‘60s she was so famous in the Bay Area that she always went out in dark shades and a kerchief, lest she be mobbed by fans. Next thing you know, she was appearing on What’s My Line and being played by Raquel Welch in an adaptation of her life story.

Weston was an all-timer, but she’s not the only fascinating story to emerge from the pack that is the history of roller derby. Let’s jam!

1. Flat track roller derby’s official rules only allow “quad skates,” and specifically ban what other type invented to help hockey players train in the offseason? Inline skates

Belgian inventor John Joseph Merlin created the first known pair of inline skates around 1760, and showed them off at a friend’s party by rolling straight into a priceless crystal mirror, cutting himself nearly to ribbons and smashing the violin he was playing at the time. Ta-da?

2. Eating spray cheese, adopting a hyena, and throwing elbows in roller derby helped Harley Quinn get through a bad breakup, at the start of what 2020 film? Birds of Prey

Harley Quinn usually has a pair of hyenas named Bud and Lou, a nod to the comedy duo Abbott and Costello. In Birds of Prey her sole hyena is named Bruce, which I can only assume is a reference to the late diplomat Bruce Laingen.

3. Gotham Girls blocker Miss American Thighs appeared in a 2010 commercial plugging the cholesterol-lowering virtues of what cereal with a heart-shaped bowl on the box? Cheerios

Here’s the commercial. Buffalo, New York has a General Mills factory, and thanks to the prevailing winds blowing off of Lake Erie the city often smells faintly of Cheerios. Honestly, anything to cover up the chicken-wing farts. 

4. If you’re trying to spot a team’s jammer during a bout, look for what symbol that also denotes years of service for an NFL captain? Star

In the NFL, each star that’s colored in gold means a year of captaincy, with a gold “C” if you’ve made it five years.  A team can send up to six captains to oversee the game’s coin tosses, but please: Don’t let them all shout out their calls all at once.

Are you ready for some OT? (Super Bowl LVIII)

5. At the 2022 Olympics, Jacksonville Roller Derby star Erin Jackson became the first American woman since Bonnie Blair to win at 500 meters, in what guessable sport? Speed skating

Not impressed yet? How about this: Jackson only put on her first pair of ice skates in 2016. Interestingly enough, Apollo Anton Ohno was also a champion inline skater before grabbing Olympic gold.

6. Poor Rob Lowe responded to a roller derby pile-up AND a runaway tank rolling through downtown Austin, in a pretty typical episode of what emergency drama? 9-1-1: Lone Star

This episode is probably based on an actual tank rampage that took place in San Diego in 1995. But it could also have been inspired by police chasing a tank through Richmond in 2018, or this more benign Florida incident from 2021, or when Worst Human Ever Steven Seagal got sued for driving a tank into an Arizona house and killing a puppy. ‘Merica!

7. The idea of making roller derby full-contact came from Damon Runyon, whose stories about Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit got adapted into what New Yorkiest of musicals? Guys and Dolls

This one of the weirder “this guy did this AND that” factoids I’ve ever come across, but it’s true! Before Runyan made his suggestions in the mid-’30s, roller derbies were just long races with occasional, accidental bumping. And when I say long, I mean 3,000 miles, broken up into entire weeks of 11½-hour sessions. Yowza.

8. Roller derby GOAT Bonnie Thunders helps control the feral kitty population through her Thundercats TNR program, which stands for “Trap, WHAT, Return”? Neuter

If you’d like to give money, Thundercats works with the Animal Rescue & Care Fund of Portland. A study at the University of Florida found that TNR programs can reduce local feral cat populations by as much as 66%, so open those wallets!

Bonus: To our great dismay, there is no longer a team called the Steamers in the Burning River Roller Derby, the top league in what Midwest city? Cleveland

It really is a terrible pity about the Steamers, but at least Burning River itself is still alive and well. Excellent derby monikers used by its current skaters include “Gordon Ram-She,” “Helena Handbasket,” and “Gal Fawkes.” Ah-ha! I see what you did there!