Fast, cheap and out of control

Recently, while drinking a beer with Joel Barker, a friend and my teammate for the Portland Adult Soapbox Derby, we began postulating about child rearing. He suggested that in the United States we’ve conspired to make a childproof world, free from the sharp corners and idiot decisions that make childhood the reckless adventure it’s been for centuries. Now children run wildly through a padded existence, unable to truly sense the danger of the world. “So what do they do?” he asked, swinging his arms wildly as he’s prone to do in moments of drunken elation, “They grow up and do horribly stupid, dangerous things!”

His girlfriend interrupted, “Oh, do you mean, like, racing a homemade, non-road worthy soapbox car down a mountain at 40 miles per hour while drunk?”


It should be noted here that Mr. Barker is a maniac.

Like Barker’s girlfriend, the fine people organizing the Portland Adult Soapbox Derby must also have a soft spot in their hearts for maniacs. Not only do they head the Sang-Froid Motorcycle Racing Club, but they’ve taken on the responsibility of allowing 30 teams of barely sober men and women race their largely untested, gravity driven cars down a steep and curving grade, much to the delight of a rowdy crowd.

Given the circumstances one would think this mix of beer, adventurous engineering, speed and mental looseness commonly associated with demolition derby drivers might result in the kind of mayhem the Portland Parks Department or the police would normally frown upon.

Taking place August 20 at 10 a.m. on beautiful Mt. Tabor, the derby continues to thrive and has begun to garner national recognition.

In order to make sure things stay safe, a set of rules have been developed for the derby competitors. Safety is a funny thing.

My stepfather was a skydiver and I spent much of my formidable years staring into the sky from the black wasteland of an airport tarmac. My father and his companions would have what he called “safety meetings.” These meetings happened regularly before take off and often as the plane reached altitude. I imagined these were highly serious affairs where the skydivers checked one another’s gear before jumping, but I later found out “safety meeting” was a euphemism for “let’s get really stoned.”

Let’s be honest, at any counter culture event there’s going to be some discreet recreational drug use. But in this case, when the Portland Adult Soapbox Derby organizers talk about safety, they actually mean safety.

For instance, all cars must have working brakes and all riders’ helmets. There are also two zones at the beginning and end of the track that are “no contact zones.” In these zones, 10 yards from the starting line and within sight of finish, the three cars in the heat can’t make contact with competitors. This rule is most important in the finals, where drivers tend to be more aggressive. Cars coming into contact near the finish line have, in past races, fallen victim to some spectacular crashes.

Additionally, there are safety rules for those watching the event. In past races, the most exciting and dangerous place to be a spectator has been along the shoulder of the 180-degree hairpin turn at the end of the track. Known as the “learning curve” this is where many an unfortunate car has careened off the road and tumbled down the steep embankment of blackberry brambles.

One year, a young boy happened to be in the wrong place on the outside of this curve when one of the faster cars lost control. When the car went over the edge the boy went with it, much to the dismay of his mother. No one was seriously hurt. Now, even though this is the kind of danger my teammate might wish for the children of the world, the derby organizers have put the outside of the learning off limits to spectators.

As far as fair play is concerned there are rules for the cars to help maintain a level playing field, not something normally desirable in soapbox racing. First, all cars must be made for under $300. This has never been a problem for my team. Second, all cars must be no larger than five feet wide and 12 feet long. Anything longer than 12 feet is difficult to control and a bitch to pass. Third, all cars must have three wheels in contact with the track and must be solely gravity driven.

The rest of the car is left to the builder’s imagination, and some teams have very vivid ones.

In less than two weeks, the products of these fevered imaginations will finally see the light of day.

For my team, Zyabiis, progress is slow but we plug along. The vehicle that began as a riding lawn mower is now a gravity powered monster that lacks brakes, proper seating, solid steering and a body. Still, there is no reason for concern, we’ll get to these things in due time. There has been a philosophy that’s stuck with us for the last three years we’ve raced.

As we build – bolting pieces together haphazardly, forgetting washers, drilling holes in the wrong places, constructing various driving components that exist on the edge of failure – we will look across the vehicle, smile at one another and say “Don’t worry, it’s just a prototype.” This is the kind of reassurance that idiots and simpletons find comforting, and so do we. Inevitably, we find ourselves at the starting line, proudly astride our vehicle that’s become nothing more than a prototype. We eyeball the competition through the visors of our helmets, yelling obscene trash talk and smirking at their obvious mechanical skill. We are the generation that, having been sheltered from danger by almost psychotically concerned parents, lives for danger. Even if it means riding the Frankenstein carcass of a riding lawn mower down an extinct volcano. Did I mention that all racers must sign a waiver?

In any event, we will work day and night to finish our prototype, just as teams across the city put finishing touches on their machines. Hopefully, on August 20, after three heats, we will be among the top 12 in the semi-finals. Should we be extremely lucky we might even make the cut and compete with five other competitors in the finals, but I have a sense that the odds are stacked against us for being one of the final three cars in the championship, which usually starts around 4 p.m.

But that’s okay. The day is more about beer, camaraderie and trash talk than anything else. A perfect cap for a long, hot summer.

Besides, who wants to race in the finals… it’s far too dangerous.