Fast, cheap and out of control

Part one: Every story starts somewhere

I remember a time when I was a little kid and I decided to build an airplane. I recruited a sadistic neighborhood kid to help me build what I was sure would be a marvel of aeronautical genius. We found some old gauges, some wood and nails then proceeded to build. What we produced was essentially a couple of two-by-fours nailed together in a shape of a cross. Our parents, obviously unable to absorb our vision, thought we might have turned religious.

The “airplane” never made it off the ground, but the desire to create a fast moving vehicle with my bare hands and push it to its structural limits never left me. The desire lay dormant for years, until the summer I was introduced to the Portland Adult Soapbox Derby. Occurring every summer on the slopes of Mt Tabor, Portland’s famous dormant volcano, the Portland Adult Soapbox Derby pits the gravity driven creations of 30 teams against one another in a balls to the wall contest of speed, nerve and agility. Unlike old-fashioned soapbox derbies, the Mt Tabor track is steep and twisted. At over one mile long, drivers will attain speeds as high as 46 miles per hour. This can be quite dangerous considering that the highest speeds occur right before drivers enter a hair-raising 180-degree turn deemed the “Learning Curve.” Throw in the fact that there are three cars per heat, racing head to head, all of which want to be the first to cross the finish line, and you have yourself one hell of an exciting event.

Over the course of the day drivers will become bloody, pit crews and fans will get drunk, and one car will emerge as the fastest machine on the mountain.

After watching the spectacle, the dormant desire to participate in the soapbox derby rose up and took over my brain. So, one evening at a BBQ I stumbled over to a good friend, held my beer aloft in a gesture of triumph and defiance and yelled drunkenly, “Let’s build a soapbox car.” It’s four years later and team Zyabiis has competed twice.

I believe that most people who participate in the Portland Adult Soapbox Derby all share the desire that gripped me as a child. It may have sprung from different circumstances, but nevertheless, every summer grown men and women hunker down in backyards and garages throughout our fair city with cases of PBR and a dream to build the fastest, most audacious, gravity powered vehicle in Portland.

This year our dream began with an engineless riding lawnmower parked unceremoniously in my driveway with a flower shoved in its grill. Procured from the internet yard sale known as Craigslist, the beast has no motor, a frozen rear axle, and two big mowing blades affixed to the undercarriage- miles away from our vision of a rocket on three wheels. What we hope to build is a car with a “tadpole” design, that is, two wheels in the front and one trailing. On top of this base is a fiberglass super structure that looks something like a missile.

Looking at the riding lawnmower it was unclear how to get from point A to point B so I did the only logical thing. I tore the fucker apart. It took about four hours and I beat my hands bloody on rough edges, but when I finished I could see the potential.

All soapbox cars must be built within a set of specific boundaries. They cannot be over three feet wide or ten feet long. They must have at least three wheels. They must be completely gravity driven. They must be structurally sound and have working brakes. All in all, the requirements aren’t too strict and leave plenty of room for imagination. There have been cars that look like chickens and insects and cans of beer. There have been gorgeous cars made of polished wood and ugly, mean looking cars welded together from scrap metal. There have been delicate looking cars that reach insane speeds and cars that look fast and go very slowly.

My team, Zyabiis, had the dubious distinction of racing the first “in-line” car in which all three wheels were in a line. Because the vehicle was articulated like a hinge in the center and was exceedingly difficult to push off the starting line, we only made it down the mountain once on race day.

It’s important that you learn from your mistakes. The in-line car was our first car. We have come a long way since then. Looking at the carcass that now sits in my garage, I have a feeling that this year will be a triumph.