How 'Junkyard Wars' Works

TLC's "Junkyard Wars" puts two teams head to head in a race to build a specific, complicated, working machine out of trash. See more TV show pictures.
Photo courtesy TLC

What would happen if you crossed HowStuffWorks with a game show? Quite likely, you would get something along the lines of  "Junkyard Wars". The series frames educational demonstrations of basic technological principles with a raucous, fast-paced, head-to-head contest.

Racing against the clock, two teams scrap together working machines to carry out a particular mission, using whatever they can find in a 5-acre junkyard. At the end of each show, the two teams pit their creations against each other to find out who has put together the best solution to the producers' challenge. It's hard to make science much cooler than that!

To fans of all ages, the formula is an ideal mesh of education and entertainment. The show has the same "real people" appeal of hit reality shows like "Survivor," but contestants compete with pure mental prowess and ingenuity, rather than alliances and plots. And in the end, it doesn't matter so much who wins -- there is no cash reward, just a trophy and bragging rights. It's all about making something remarkable with limited resources.

In this article, we'll find out how this popular show came about, how the teams are selected and how the producers put together each show. As we'll see, there's even more to this popular show than meets the eye.


Cathy Rogers, the creator of "Scrapheap Challenge" and "Junkyard Wars," with team members
Cathy Rogers, the creator of "Scrapheap Challenge" and "Junkyard Wars," with team members

Like "Trading Spaces," "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and "The Weakest Link," "Junkyard Wars" is actually a remake of a popular British series -- Channel 4's "Scrapheap Challenge."

The original show, initially titled "Scrapheap," debuted in the U.K. in 1998. It gained a devoted following pretty quickly, and after three seasons, it was a hit all across the U.K. Impressed with the format (and the ratings), Discovery Communications bought the rights to air the show on TLC, under the name "Junkyard Wars." The import attracted a sizable American audience, and TLC commissioned new episodes specifically for the U.S. market. Apart from its American hosts and contestants, "Junkyard Wars" is nearly identical to its British counterpart. Incidentally, the American version is also a hit in the U.K., along with the original.

The series was created Cathy Rogers, who ended up doing double duty as co-producer and co-host in past seasons. According to Rogers, the idea was partially inspired by the 1995 Ron Howard film "Apollo 13," a docudrama about the 1970 Apollo mission, which met with a series of near-disastrous catastrophes. In real life and in the movie, astronauts aboard the Apollo 13 spacecraft and NASA engineers on the ground managed to save the entire crew working with the various items that happened to be onboard. Rogers loved the combination of tense drama and real applied science in the movie, and saw that the same sort of mix would make a cool TV show.

Show Basics

Photo courtesy TLC

The rules of the game are pretty simple. There are two competing teams, made up of three contestants and an expert who is selected by the producers. The contestants are asked to build a machine to accomplish a specific task, using only the tools and assorted materials at the junkyard site.

The L.A. junkyard set
Photo courtesy TLC

On the day of the competition, the contestants arrive at the junkyard, around dawn, with no idea of what they'll be building. As soon as the hosts give them the assignment, the clock is ticking. The contestants discuss the project with the expert, who has prepared some design ideas before the contest. Once the team has analyzed the challenge and decided how to approach the problem, they head out into the junkyard to collect whatever they'll need.

Salvaging stuff from the junk yard
Photo courtesy TLC

For the rest of the day, the team works on assembling the machine, regularly heading back to the junkyard for more stuff. They have a good collection of tools, including a MIG welder and several high-powered saws.

A contestant working with one of the MIG welders
Photo courtesy TLC

Most of the hour-long show is devoted to the building process, with the hosts periodically interrupting the two teams to discuss the projects. In the "chalk talk" sections of the show, the hosts explain the science behind the different machines with simple blackboard-style animated diagrams.

A "chalk talk" illustration
Photo courtesy TLC

At the end of the show, cranes hoist the machines out of the junkyard and they're transported to an appropriate competition area (a large pond for water vessels, for example, or a large field for catapults) and the teams have a couple of hours to fine-tune their machines. Then, it's time to put their machines to the test, head to head in that episode's challenge. The basic structure of the challenge varies a lot from week to week -- it could be a race between two vehicles, or it could be hitting a target, or it could be directed toward a specific goal, such as lifting a car from the bottom of a pond and hoisting it onto dry land.

Whoever wins the contest -- as determined by the judge, another expert in the field -- goes on to face a new team and a new challenge on the next show. At the end of the season, the top teams compete for a trophy (made of junk, of course), which they hold onto until the end of the next season.

Photo courtesy TLC

On the most basic level, that's all there is to it. But, as we'll see in the next section, there's a little more to the competition than you actually see on the show.

Behind the Scenes

The power raft was one of the more popular challenges from season 5.
The power raft was one of the more popular challenges from season 5.
Photo courtesy TLC

Every episode of "Junkyard Wars" starts well before the contestants ever arrive at the junkyard. First, the producers and researchers have to come up with the idea for a viable, difficult but not impossible challenge. Ideas come from all over -- suggestions from friends, family members and visitors to the site's message boards. The producers focus on machines that are interesting to watch in action and interesting to watch being built, which usually means big machines that move in some way.

Once the producers have an idea for the show, they round up two experts, often through the Internet. The experts are usually professional engineers or scientists working in fields related to the challenge. For an episode where the two teams had to build fireboats, the producers recruited two guys who work for pump-manufacturing companies. For a land-yacht competition, they brought in a land-sailing champion and a university professor who works on land yachts as a hobby.

When they find the right people, the producers explain the challenge to the experts and ask them to come up with a few possible designs. Typically, the two experts approach the problem from different perspectives, steering the teams in different directions to make the challenge more interesting. You get two different ideas, rather than two versions of the same device.

An artillery expert advises The Hicks Family.
Photo courtesy TLC

On the building day, the experts give some suggestions about what the teams might build, but ultimately the contestants decide exactly what they want to do. The experts are mainly there as back-up, in case the teams have no idea how to proceed or find themselves heading down the wrong track. As the day progresses, the teams usually have to modify their original plans and try something different.

Based on input from the experts, the producer may decide to "seed" the junkyard with specific items. For the most part, the contestants have to work with whatever the junkyard workers happen to dump on the set (the set is indeed a real junkyard -- or at least a piece of one -- located in Los Angeles, California). This includes flattened cars, stacks of wood (mostly old concrete forms), plumbing fixtures, wire rope, HVAC equipment, electrical conduit and various discarded machines full of gears and bearings. But the producers may decide that the teams can't realistically build some machines in 10 hours without particular components.

The seeded items are old salvage material, just like everything else, and the producers mix them in with the rest of the junk. The producers will also provide some select new items to ensure the machines are relatively safe. It can be very dangerous to outfit a machine with some older equipment, such as safety valves and busted hydraulic hoses, so the producers amend the spirit of the game a little to keep people from getting hurt. The producers may also remove certain items from the junkyard if those pieces would make the challenge too simple.

During construction, safety is always a major concern. Firefighters and paramedics are on hand at all times, and the producers won't let the contestants attempt high-risk building procedures. Additionally, the producers schedule a "safety day." On the show, the competition day seems to immediately follow the build day, but in actuality, the contestants get a day off while machine experts check their creations for any potential safety problems and make the necessary modifications.

Getting on the Show

The three guys on Bronx Bravest, one of the teams competing in season 8, are all firefighters from Ladder Company 47 in the Bronx, New York.
The three guys on Bronx Bravest, one of the teams competing in season 8, are all firefighters from Ladder Company 47 in the Bronx, New York.
Photo courtesy TLC

"Junkyard Wars" contestants come from a variety of different backgrounds -- for example, repairmen, airline pilots and artists have all been on the show. They're just regular people, in the sense that they don't necessarily build those sorts of machines professionally, but they generally have considerable collective engineering experience of some sort, either from work or a hobby.

To get on the show, contestants have to fill out an application, explaining their backgrounds, the history of their friendship and their interests, and create a short video demonstrating their abilities. On the video, the team can either explain how a particular machine works or document its attempt to build a machine.

The "Junkyard Wars" producers are looking for the right combination of skill, creativity, screen presence and history. Contestants don't need an engineering degree, or even an engineering job, but the producers do look for a few crucial skill sets. Each team needs at least one person who knows how to use a MIG welder, as welding is a crucial part of putting together just about any "Junkyard Wars" machine. Experience with engines is also a definite plus, and every member of the team should have a good understanding of physics.

You won't get too far in the junkyard without at least one welder.
Photo courtesy TLC

The producers are typically drawn to team members with a close connection to each other -- siblings, long time co-workers and school friends, for example. You also see a lot of teams that were brought together by an interesting hobby. The main thing is that everybody works well together, while all bringing something to the team. Simply put, charismatic people with a good group dynamic makes for more interesting television.

While the producers don't care much about the submission video's production value, they pay a lot of attention to the applicants' choice of subject matter and the way they decided to present it. Creativity and originality is key on the video and the application.

Wenches with Wrenches, one of the teams that will compete in season 8, all come from a drag-racing background.
Photo courtesy TLC

If the producers are impressed by a potential team's video and application, they schedule a telephone interview. If the telephone interview goes well, the team is selected for the upcoming season, and the producers schedule a date. They fly the team members out to L.A., set them up in a hotel, and take care of reasonable expenses.

If you love the show, love to build things and have a couple of like-minded friends, you too could get your time in the spotlight. "Junkyard Wars" is not accepting applications right now, but they will start up again as they prepare for the next season. Keep an eye on the "Junkyard Wars" Web site.

For much more information on "Junkyard Wars," and its English cousin "Scrapheap Challenge," check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links