In a world where "safety" is given increasing precedence over "fun," the annual Portland Adult Soapbox Derby is a dangerous, wild throwback to simpler, rowdier times. While city elders fight to make Portland more and more "livable" for the upper classes, the soapbox derby represents what our down 'n' dirty city is really about; drinking, carousing, and putting the pedal to the floor.
The soapbox derby concept, as it has remained for years, is devilishly simple. Build a gravity-powered (no engine) car and race it down the winding mile-long terror known as Mount Tabor. The only restrictions? The car must have brakes, and no fireworks are allowed (though both rules have been broken on occasion.) The race is a testament to Portland's do-it-yourself creativity—past cars have been constructed to resemble coffins, hillbilly trucks, snowballs, towering ghetto blasters, or a concept as simple as a guy riding a log.
While speed may be the ultimate goal of some, many drivers build deliciously surreal art cars, garnering the cheers of the thousands in attendance. Others take a different approach, constructing wind-tunnel tested aerodynamic wonders that reach speeds over 30 MPH— often becoming the center of the most spectacular wrecks.
Yes, people have been hurt—but death has always been avoided, thanks largely to another important factor of the derby: ALCOHOL. The drivers and attendees can't get enough of the stuff—and while the crowds are encouraged to keep their brew within the confines of the assigned beer gardens... well, what can I say? Schlitz happens.
It's a hilarious day of naughty fun, and this year's derby is shaping up to be better than ever. Contestants have been divided into two separate categories: "Art" and "Science," which pit the fast against the furious (speedy cars), and the arty against the farty (creative entries). Prizes and awards are distributed to the fastest and most artistic, and the fun-filled day finishes with a shake-ass party at Sabala's (see "My, What a Busy Week!" page 19 for details).
But who are these modern-day gladiators who pit their limited mechanical experience against the laws of physics, risking life and limb for a cheering throng and a few seconds of glory? The Mercury was determined to find out, spotlighting six of this year's 36 competitors. Check out their rides, read their blustering threats, and wish them luck—because they are Portland's real heroes. For as the bumper stickers say, they are helping keep Portland weird. n
Name of Team: Arciform
Team Members: Gary Hill, Jeff Vasey, Tyson Garofalo, Eddy Peterson, Dean Repnick, Scott Mumma, Richard DeWolf, Spencer Fransway
Average Age of Team: "Old enough to know better."
Comments: Second derby, last year finished mid pack.
Best and/or Most Frightening Memory: "During last year's gauntlet race, a bad crash sent two of us to the emergency room. I [Richard] had a dislocated shoulder and Eddy broke a bone in his hand. Good thing we took our recommended dosage of PBR at the start of the day, delaying the trip to the E.R. until after the final party. The best part is that I had a video camera in the car that documented the entire thing—including the roll over!"
Car's Advantages/Disadvantages: "Scary fast and heavy—not the kind of car you want to mess with. A crash this year will not be pretty."
Preferred Derby Beer: "PBR."
Threat for Competitors: "Beware! Our shiny fins will slice you up!"
Name of Team: WMD
Team Members: Kevin McDowell (driver, builder), Kelsey McDowell (nurse, server, cheers), Adam King (pusher, drinker). This is their first derby.
Car Description: "Our car is da bomb—literally! It's fashioned to look and perform like a USA cruise missile—fast and deadly. Although I only have 30-40 hours logged into construction of the WMD, hundreds of hours of discussion, daydreaming, research, and testing have been accumulated."
Car's Advantages/Disadvantages: "Pros: Small frontal area and clean bodywork for low aerodynamic drag, quality bearings, and high pressure tires for low rolling resistance, adjustable independent rear suspension, precision 4:1 reduction steering, lightweight for better handling and acceleration from pusher, laser-guided trajectory for pinpoint precision aim, large explosive payload for added 'shock and awe' effect, and it looks like a giant phallus. Cons: Inexperience, drunkenness, poor losers, lack of fan club, and our driver has a small penis."
Preferred Derby Beer: "Isn't PBR compulsory?"
Threats for Competitors: "Pleeeaaase... did you see Gulf War I & II? We will bomb the shit out of your pathetic excuse for a derby car."
Name of Team: Sons of Macbeth
Team Members: Sirs McDougald, McDonald, Farquharson, & Buchanan (AKA Rob McDougald, Spencer French, Ben Pope, Bryce Gartrell)
Average Age of Team: "Mental: 12. Physical: a factor of 12."
Best and/or Most Frightening Derby Memory: Bryce: "I accidentally looked up Ben's kilt during a crash."
Car's Advantages/Disadvantages: "Advantage: stealth technology combined with sheep muck integrated with brown note technology delivered via a high-fidelity windbag. Disadvantage: no underwear."
Preferred Derby Beer: "24 ounce orange Zima with 'wee dram' chasers."
Threats for Competitors: "Surrender your bonny virgins and quadrupeds... prepare to be boarded!"
MEET DESIGNATED DRIVER
Name of Team: Zyabiis, AKA the "Zyabiis Rogue Nuclear Program." (Zyabiis is a Russian term which loosely translates to "Fuck yeah!" or "Fuck no!" depending on inflection, emphasis, and what angle—relative to the earth—your soapbox car happens to be in. Team rules state that it must be shouted drunkenly at top volume once every 30 minutes.)
Team Members: Patrick "Hollyvood" Coleman, Joel "Anastasia Romanov" Barker, Matthew "Der Kommissar" Flaming, The Shadowy Cabal.
Team Background: "Having been rejected by the American Space Program, we began building incredibly fast and dangerous gravity-driven cars in hopes of proving ourselves worthy of being Russian cosmonauts. In 2004, we could not race because we had been caught speeding at the Mongolian border and spent a year in the wilds of Siberia due to the tough Russian traffic laws. After a highly improbable escape we fled to Iraq where we heard scientists were working on a new, nuclear-powered soapbox racer. There we joined the development team. After our prototype was photographed by a spy satellite, the American government mistook our project to be a weapons program. We fled with our technology after the invasion. We are now re-assembling Z-3 and plan to trounce the competition with a sly blend of Russian engineering, Middle East know-how, and some lovely giraffe print upholstery."
Car's Advantage/Disadvantage: "Our advantage is that Z-3 has been designed by geniuses and therefore lacks any disadvantage."
Preferred Derby Beer: "Vodka thick with the grit of desert sands and chased with the blood of our enemies... and PBR is okay, too."
Threats for Competitors: "There is no need to threaten our competitors, for they need only look into our steely gaze to know we shall be victorious—if not today, then the day after that, or next week if they're free... How about Monday? No, wait... Joel has that dentist appointment and Matthew is getting his nipples refinished. Thursday is good though. And if not Thursday, then we shall bear down upon them when they least expect it, our wheels spinning viciously at their heels, the sinews of our previous victims flexing between our teeth, and they will hear our fiendish cry. It might be best for your families, friends, pets, neighbors, favorite bartenders, local clergy, and imaginary friends if you simply stand aside and let Team Ziyabiis claim the glorious victory that is rightfully ours. It might be best if you simply stayed away from the soapbox race, because in the frenzy of our inevitable victory we enjoy toasting each other with the skulls of our defeated enemies. If your spouses might not enjoy the sight of your flayed and bloodied skins being used as sunshades by Team Ziyabiis between one race and the next, it would probably be a good idea if you kept those skins off Mt. Tabor—particularly if it's sunny... [These "non-threats" continue for another 2,000 words, so let's skip to the end, shall we?—Editor] ...of course, all these concerns should already be matters of common sense. Indeed, they are only worth reiterating here to affirm what you already know: That as true Soviet patriots, we have no need to stoop to threats, and have only your best interests at heart."