Danger comes in many forms: as the snarling dog with the broken leash, the drunken frat boy on a jet ski, or even something as innocuous as an unattended rollerskate left on a staircase by a malevolent child. Even under normal circumstances, danger patiently waits within arms' length, ready to bruise a leg, poke out an eye, or--if luck is with it on that particular day--wipe out a busload of nuns. So, knowing full well that danger is just waiting to have its way with me, why have I chosen to speed down Mt. Tabor in a soapbox car constructed by those who only have a nodding familiarity with the concept of automotive mechanics?
It makes little difference whether I'm going 20 or 200 mph. I'm low to the ground and moving fast. As the speed increases, I begin to feel every dimple in the surface of the road. The steering is super-sensitive, and would rather go in a direction of its own choosing, than heed my commands. Then it happens. I hit a rough patch of pavement that comes in waves, and the car begins to shimmy, making a very disturbing Wohwohwohwohwohwohwoh sound. I glance down to locate the hand brake, but I don't dare let go of the steering wheel. I glance up, to see a steep 30 foot embankment looming ominously to my right. I glance to the front axle of car, which is slowly beginning to bend, causing the right wheel to fold inward, inch by inch.
Danger has officially arrived, and has a special message for me: my fucking goose is cooked.
The PDX Adult Soapbox Derby has been held on Mt. Tabor since 1996, originally organized by tattoo artist Paul Zenk. I'm using "organized" very loosely, as the event involves between 10 and 20 racers, marginal prizes, and a few cases of beer. Though these drivers may not possess superior skill in the field of automotive design, they have the motivation and desire needed to accomplish their ultimate goal: get loaded, go fast, have fun.
The race starts at the upper parking lot of Mt. Tabor, winding down almost a mile of sharp turns and straight-aways. The contestants often wear fanciful costumes, which in the past have included nude body suits, or even a polar bear outfit. And though there are national soapbox organizations strictly regulating the construction of cars, including wheel size and braking systems, the PDX Adult Soapbox Derby is what's known as a splinter group. They operate under only the flimsiest of rules: You have to wear a helmet, you must have a braking system of some sort (no feet or "Fred Flintstone" brakes), and shooting fireworks at other cars during the race is strictly prohibited. After that, anything goes.
This lack of stringent regulations allows participants to be more creative in their car design. Though most vehicles have four wheels, there is plenty of room in this organization for anything from three (and in at least one case) 18 wheels. While speed is important, sometimes it must take a backseat to creative body design. Take for example "Vlad the Impaler," one of the more intimidating vehicles, which has a silver metal body whose nose has been sharpened to a fine point, and splattered with red paint to signify the blood of fallen competitors.
However, one of the most beautiful cars belongs to this year's race organizer, Louis Todd. A freelance contractor and wood-worker, Louis has constructed a stunning car out of thin strips of cedar, which resembles an highly polished kayak on wheels. The time and love Louis has put into this racer is apparent; aerodynamics, weight distribution, wheel and braking construction--all are combined to blow the doors (if they had any) off any competitor and, just as importantly, to do it in style.
ACCIDENTS WILL HAPPEN
"When we were kids," Louis explains, "we didn't know how to do anything right. We would build these really scary cars out of salvaged material, and of course, you're going to take them down the biggest hill. So we're driving this death trap, and half way down we hit a clod of dirt and WHAM! The car flips and explodes into splinters.
Things are different now, though. I am the original soap box nerd. I even drew a full size blue print for this car."
Louis certainly doesn't fulfill any normal expectation of a soapbox geek. He's in his late 20's, with a long blonde ponytail and--throwing caution to the wind--often drives shirtless. But it's obvious he knows his stuff.
"If you're looking for a fast car," Louis says with knowing gleam in his eye, "you've got two options: you need wheels with bearings--highly important!--and an aerodynamic design. Everybody wants to know the perfect formula, but I don't think there is one. I've seen some heavy cars which are really fast once they get going, but get off to a slow start, because their pushers can't move them. But then if the car is too light, it slows down at the end. You need a happy medium."
Then of course, there's the danger factor. Speeds on the Mt. Tabor track can reach up to 40 mph, and if a contestant has been a bit lax in the design department, bad things can happen. Yet, according to Louis, they rarely do.
"Most accidents occur during testing. We do test runs before the races just to make sure the cars are gonna work," he says. "In '98 my car experienced a pretty good wreck, and I wasn't even at the wheel. An axle snapped off while a friend was driving it. One of the wheel's folded up and shot off the cliff. Then the car's back end went all squirrelly, and spun around, but luckily she ended up in a big pile of mulch."
"There's been other minor accidents, too," he continues, "but only one person has ever gotten hurt during a race. And that's because he stepped in a pile of dog shit, slipped and broke his ankle."
THE RIGHT STUFF
At the top of Mt. Tabor on a sweltering Sunday afternoon, a few of the contestants meet to take their vehicles on some test runs in preparation of the actual race on August 19th and 20th. According to Louis, it takes all kinds to race soapbox cars: there's the welders, the cooks, the bartenders, the motorcycle racers, and the businesspeople. Whether male or female, all are welcome--as long as they're 21 or over. Not that the PDX Adult Soapbox Derby is ageist, but rather...
"We drink a lot of beer," Louis says. "It's actually part of the sport. I don't want to tell anybody they have to be an alcoholic to race soapbox cars...but they kind of go hand in hand."
The drivers stand around trading design secrets, and discussing what they need to get ready for the race. Todd Caspersen (aka "El Diablo") whose car is called "Chariot from Hell," notes, "I need more air in the tires, my steering's a little loose, and the car needs a good wax job." Then he adds, "And of course, I'll be shaving my entire body...but then, I do that anyway."
A crowd of friends and strangers gather to watch the cars as they speed down the hill. Daisy, a biker who owns one of the three-wheelers, explains what's required to build a racer.
"Mechanical ability isn't all that important. Motivation is all you really need. You build a soapbox and suddenly you're a part of this strange community of toys, where you get together, get loaded, and work on the car. Then when you're driving it? You fly by and 100 people are jealous. It's a kick in the ass."
After their test runs, Louis and the others give spectators a chance to drive their creations. I'm dubious, but Daisy gives me all the motivation I need to climb into the car: "Ohhh, C'MON!! It's supposed to be dangerous! Otherwise it's not fun!"
Climbing into Louis' soapbox, I'm still too busy admiring his handiwork to be nervous, even when he gives what I consider to be an overly enthusiastic push down the hill. He warned me the steering was very sensitive, but I was thinking more in terms of how an actual automobile produced in Detroit might handle. I was doing everything I could to keep the car on the straight and narrow. And when I hit the wavy part of the track, and the wohwohwohwohwoh sound began, visions of splintered wood and bone began dancing before my eyes. It felt like the scene in The Right Stuff where Chuck Yeager is trying to break the speed of sound, and the plane starts to shake uncontrollably, and the instruments start to break, and just when you think you're going to panic and the craft surrounding you is going to break in a million pieces--zoom. Everything levels off: the steering relaxes, the wheels straighten out, the bumping stops, and all you hear is the steady buzz of the wheels and the roar of the wind.
And therein lies the beauty of soapbox racing. You are not a mechanical engineer or automotive designer. Yet you have built something that's self-powered; a vehicle capable of taking you past the danger of what could be, and transporting you back to a feeling of speed and daring that only the young can own. And there is only one thought in your mind, as the vehicle smoothly coasts to a stop: Let me out of this thing, so I can do it again.
The time trials for the PDX Adult Soapbox Derby will take place on Saturday, August 19 at noon. The finals are Sunday, August 20 at noon. Both events begin at the upper parking lot at Mt. Tabor, and are free to the public.