Thrills! Spills! The Greater Los Angeles Soap Box Derby

Illustration for article titled Thrills! Spills! The Greater Los Angeles Soap Box Derby

Amid Saturday morning cries of "hooray for gravity", the 8th Annual Los Angeles edition of the All-American Soap Box Derby went down in close proximity to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. While most of America's race fans were parked in front of their 42" flat panel televisions for some five-hour NASCAR pre-race drivel show these guys were out racing and having a wicked good time. And even though we've seen plenty of equally entertaining drunken hipster versions of Soap Box Derby this was the real deal, with winners potentially moving onto the national Akron, Ohio meet in July.

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Illustration for article titled Thrills! Spills! The Greater Los Angeles Soap Box Derby

Soap Box as we know it was discovered by one newspaper reporter Myron E. "Scottie" Scott. The idea of a series struck him as a good way to get some ink into the paper and some money into his pockets after Scottie spotted some aspiring hoons racing their motorless speeders down a hill. Using his camera and words along with some carrots in the form of prizes, Scottie started what came to be and is still known as the Greatest Amateur Racing Event in the World. Early race cars were actually made from wooden orange crates and presumably a soap box, even though no record of such a car exists.

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Illustration for article titled Thrills! Spills! The Greater Los Angeles Soap Box Derby

Today's cars themselves are split into three categories. Stock, Super Stock, and Masters. Stock and Super Stock cars must be built with an official kit to make sure the field is level down to the last screw and wire. Masters cars are permitted a bit more leeway but must still conform to national series rules. The Stockers are pointed at both ends. The Super Stockers are more rounded, and the Masters cars are the most swoopy. Car and driver combined weights are 200 pounds for stock, 230 for Super and 255 for Masters.

Illustration for article titled Thrills! Spills! The Greater Los Angeles Soap Box Derby

All the cars run through tech at the beginning of the race to check for atomic reactors or other secret power sources. Each heat consists of two races with one run by each car in each lane. To prevent anyone from using some type of space-age bearings the wheels are swapped from car to car between each heat. You could start the race with some manner of superleggera wheels and sekrit flubber tire compound, but odds are good someone else would cross the finish line with them. Derby officials help reunite everyone with their wheels at the end of the race.

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Illustration for article titled Thrills! Spills! The Greater Los Angeles Soap Box Derby

The local Kiwanis Club organized the event and got the Sheriffs to create a detour that blocked off the hill so the kids could turn gravity into velocity. With a pull of the lever these guys were off. By the time they got to the bottom of the hill speeds broke the 30 mph mark! Despite the best efforts at braking by some of the drivers, the Flintsones-style brake sometimes didn't do much good at speed reduction. Piling into the hay bales on the big end of the course made for some cone mowing drama. Even with a post wreck bruise or two, the kids looked like they were having a blast.

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The Other Wheeled Sport in the Carolinas: Soapbox Racing [Internal]

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DISCUSSION

When I was in 5th grade, I discovered a book that taught how to build a soapbox racer. Being a bored, awkward new kid in a new town, it was like a Bible to me, it would unlock all the doors instantly! I would build me a big, bad, soapbox racer, and I would make friends and pick up all the middle school ladiez. It was a wondrous miracle into the high life, and my life would change forever.

But my secret wasn't safe with me; I had barely just assembled my crew when a rival gang arose to combat me for the sacred book. It was to be a duel, in some woods behind some kid named Pat's house, where locals presumably experimented with various substances and lost their virginities en masse. It would be an all-out downhill battle to the death, across bumps and dirts and thrills and chills and spills. By now the entire 5th grade class heard about it, and the winner would go down in the annals of history as the greatest challenger of Nelson Place. Medals would be given out. Soda would be freely distributed. It would be epic.

Instead of wrangling with wood, I pulled a Colin Chapman and added lightness via a big cardboard refrigerator box. Whose lightness was later negated by some massive wheelbarrow wheels ($8.59, Home Depot Shrewsbury. How do I still remember this?) I had a rudimentary steering column hooked up, but had to face the problem of ensuring that the wheelbarrow wheels would stay on, which was sort of important. So lots of duct tape was sacrificed. How were my crosstown rivals doing? Rumors were spilling that they were going with forced induction, but formal complaints on my behalf yielded nothing from the sanctioning body. Also, they stole my lunch money to intimidate me. Or, they just wanted my money.

But all this effort led to nothing. I ended up moving out of Worcester, to a nice flat neighborhood with no hills. People here were into BMX bikes and not the fine art of downhill racing. I tinkered with my 550 Spyder, even going as far as switching engines to pedal power, but eventually it just sat in a corner of the garage until my mom tossed it outside. Curbside recycling can destroy our finest efforts. I haven't spoken to the rival crew since, I imagine they've moved onto bigger and better things. Or died from drug overdoses in their Trans Ams.

I still may have the book somewhere, though. Klaatu barada nikto, indeed.