This is American asphalt: hard, gray, dangerous. For the safe driver, a ribbon of asphalt is the symbol of freedom. But for the reckless, that ribbon might as well decorate their funeral wreath.
Nowhere is this more true than the idyllic half-mile stretch of road snaking through the evergreens of Mt. Tabor Park. At 10 am on Saturday, August 16, this stretch of blacktop hosts the Portland Adult Soapbox Derby, where 42 teams will run their homemade, gravity-powered jalopies down the side of this extinct volcano. For the heedless speed demon, Mt. Tabor is a "danger alley," a beer-fueled grudge match of steel, wood, and rubber.
"There's a bad-ass element to the derby," says soapbox ringleader Zach Hull. "If you're doing it at all, you've got cajones. Because it's fucking dangerous."
Sure, it might be "hep" or "with-it" to compete in or observe the derby, but it's important to remember that a safe soapbox experience is the best soapbox experience. Before strapping yourself into a gravity-driven vehicle or lining up on the course to watch, you'd better know the rules of the road. Otherwise, you too might add your blood to America's crimson asphalt.
Know Your Vehicle
Knowledge is safety. A soapbox car must have three wheels in contact with the road, weigh less than 500 pounds, and must be shorter than 12 and no wider than five feet. As with any vehicle, the most important part is the brakes. Thoughtful soapbox drivers are familiar with the braking mechanism of their car, and use it liberally in order to complete the course successfully and safely.
Hull explains, "If you're going to win you should never brake." That's advice to live by.
It's also important to know the function of your car. The Portland Adult Soapbox Derby has two categories. One for science—meaning cars built for speed—and one for art—meaning cars built for art. As a spectator, you'll know at first glance which car is fastest and therefore, the most dangerous.
"Sometimes the fastest times are not from the cars you'd expect," Hull notes.
As far as art cars are concerned, successful teams shy away from flamboyant designs that might distract other drivers. They prefer sticking to classical, understated themes.
Gina Shilhanek is a member of team French Kiss. Hers is a meditative vehicle.
"It's going to be a snow globe," she explains. "There will be two women in the globe with snow flying around us and maybe sticking to our lips. We're supposed to be French people."
Her somber approach is likely to keep Shilhanek and her teammates from a terrifying, gravel-filled death. They plan to drive defensively, never putting their safety in the hands of other racers.
"Actually, you have to have trust in other people," she says, "so you don't cross tracks and crash."
If there were more Gina Shilhaneks on our nation's roadways, there would be far less blood in the medians.
Practice Good Engineering
The safest driver is the driver with a sturdy car built to "workman-like standards." Remember, building the safest car possible is the best way to win the biggest reward of all: living. So you must have excellent engineering skills.
Hull agrees, "Absolutely not. Not at all. You just need to have some sense of creativity."
A safe driver is also the one who builds his car with honesty, integrity, and only the best supplies.
Hull offers this advice, "You're only supposed to spend $300—but that doesn't mean [the car] can't be worth more than $300. In this case you have to find a creative way to close that price gap.... You may need to beg, borrow, negotiate, or steal."
Indeed. An honest driver always wins.
Also, a safe Portland Adult Soapbox driver has respect for gravity-driven vehicles. He treats his car with the respect it deserves.
John Swanson of Team Manvil is an example of this concept; his car, for example, "looks like a batch of raw steel welded together," he says. "It will eventually resemble a coffee table. And after the race, it will serve that purpose in my living room."
A soapbox driver like Swanson does not simply view his vehicle as a benign object, like a chair or a vase of flowers. He understands that it is possibly lethal.
"I'm hoping it will be the fastest coffee table around."
Know the Lay of the Land
Any road can be a theater for destruction—and the Mt. Tabor derby course is no different. From beginning to end the course contains two curves, a straightaway, and a hairpin turn, known in the parlance of soapbox racers as "the learning curve."
For safe soapbox drivers, the course is a leisurely drive in the park. They have little to worry about as they navigate the track. Winning might be thrilling—but so is crossing the finish line uninjured.
Hull characterizes the experience: "You get going 40 MPH and you have to make a sharp right hand turn in something you made from scratch. It's scary. It gets scarier the less you know about building stuff."
Better Sober Than Sorry
Drinking and soapbox racing is a deadly combination. Hull takes a hard line on drinking at his event.
"Drinking is part of it," he says soberly. "It's part of the Portland scene. [Portland's Parks Department] has allowed us to designate the entire course as a beer garden within 10 feet of the track on either side."
Sure there may be a few bad apples at the soapbox derby who decide to drink a beer or two. These ruffians are the types who believe that drinking equals "fun." But this is not the kind of "fun" a responsible person has.
Boozy Bob might think beer makes him a better spectator. He thinks yelling and hooting as cars go past is "the tops." He looks forward to crashes and speeding. But Teetotaler Tommy knows better. He knows it's more hep to quietly meditate on the race, taking note of safe driving practices on the track, while learning from the mistakes of reckless drivers.
The safe soapbox team is also aware of the effect of alcohol on their performance. They understand that the spectre of alcohol can only lead to trouble, especially when it comes to building their cars.
Hull, also a veteran racer, recalls building his car with a somber reserve.
"We drank a ton when we built our car," he remembers. "With the first car we bought all this champagne and broke a bottle over the car. And then we sat around the car and drank champagne all night. It's a part of [the derby]: overcoming your fear, using alcohol, and being young."
An important lesson, indeed. Soapbox racers and beer clearly do not mix.
A Safe Day Is an Enjoyable Day
Using these pointers will ensure that your day at the derby is an enjoyable one. Keep in mind that gravity-driven vehicles may look harmless, but in the wrong hands they can be powerfully destructive.
The Portland Adult Soapbox Derby is a time to celebrate reason and cool headedness. It's a day to practice safety. Above all, it is a deadly serious event. Perhaps Gina Shilhanek says it best: "The soapbox derby is an eclectic mish mash of creativity, personalities, and fun. It's kookiness at its finest."
We can all learn something from the Gina Shilhaneks, Zach Hulls, and John Swansons of this world—each of them heroes of road safety. It's attitudes like theirs that might someday remove the bloody stain of our crimson asphalt.
Portland Adult Soapbox Derby, Mt. Tabor Park, SE 60th & Salmon, Sat Aug 16, 10 am-4:30 pm, free; afterparty at Plan B, 1305 SE 8th, 6 pm