During their first soapbox derby race, Aaron Abrams and Pete West's car ended up in a bramble of blackberry bushes.
"The Muddy River Nightmare Band racer knocked us off the road the first year," Abrams claims. "The nails on their car tore my jumpsuit—they mangled our ride."
Welcome to the annual Portland Adult Soapbox Derby.
For the past 11 years, bold gearheads have paid for the privilege of racing their gravity-powered deathtraps down a curvy mile-long track. They've suffered abrasions, lacerations, concussions, and contusions due to the perilous twists and turns of Mt. Tabor. But this Saturday, they will gladly risk injury again. For what? Money. Fame. Shiny trophies. The jealousy, envy, and hatred of one's peers. The usual.
The event, run by (Mercury Marketing Director) Zach Hull and Patrick Leyshock, will start at 10 am on Saturday, August 25. The races will be followed by an afterparty at Plan B (1305 SE 8th), where awards will be distributed with the help of music and beverages. (During the race however, it's BYOB.)
Soapbox cars must rely on gravity for propulsion rather than engines. Because entries are strictly DIY, some cars fall apart before reaching the finish line, but that's half the fun of the derby—it's a test of engineering know-how as much as racing prowess.
Cars fall into one of two categories: "Art" for the pretty ones and "science" for the fast ones. That's not to say an "art" car can't be fast or a "science" car can't be pretty—it's really up to the contestants to figure out what's best for their babies. Awards are not only given for winning, but for more esoteric goals: best art car, engineering, crowd pleaser, costumes, and the ever-dubious lame duck award.
Abrams and West are a prime example of the DIY ethos of the Adult Soapbox Derby.
"We pretty much wing it," West says. "Think on the fly. Make it up as we go."
He says they had no idea how to make a soapbox car when they started racing five years ago. Their first car was a tricycle-like vehicle made out of steel plumbing pipes. They christened it Landshark I, after a recurring character from Saturday Night Live.
Even after being run off the road in their first year, Abrams and West weren't discouraged. The desire for revenge strengthened their resolve, and they went to work improving Landshark so they could beat the team who mangled their ride.
Despite having zero knowledge of the basics of designing and building an effective racing vehicle, they kept at it. They learned welding from West's father. They created a workspace in West's garage and filled it with the necessary tools. They redesigned Landshark from scratch for last year's race, ditching the tricycle look of Landsharks I-III in favor of a 1940s-style Indy racecar influence. Out went the plumbing pipes; in went the sheet metal.
The new design gave them a much-needed boost last year. In each of the three time trials, Landshark IV finished in less than 1.5 minutes—a barrier they could never crack with the original design.
"As the day went on, we thought—yeah, we could actually win this," West says.
The two just barely missed finals after falling a single second behind last year's first-place winner, Fix Diesel Teaser V, during the semi-finals. They achieved a respectable third-place finish, which was a welcome surprise to both racers. It was their first time winning an award; they didn't even remember to go to the afterparty to pick up their trophy. This year, they've set their expectations higher—they want first.
With only a short amount of time before this year's derby, Abrams and West are hurrying to make as many changes to last year's model as possible. They're trying to get a recently installed steering box from an old Mercedes-Benz to work. And if there's time, they hope to extend the back cab and lengthen the brake bars.
But they'll have to hurry. Both Fix Diesel Teaser and last year's second-place winners, Team F.A.N.G., are returning for another go at the coveted first-place spot. And who knows—a new design may come out of nowhere to smoke the competition.
Suspense—that's the other half of the fun.
Adult Soapbox Derby: Mt. Tabor Park, SE Salmon & 60th, Sat Aug 25, 10 am, free, all ages; Afterparty: Plan B (formerly Acme), 1305 SE 8th, w/Muddy River Nightmare Band & Motorama, 6 pm, $3, 21+