Friends, I have seen the future of Sport, and it was built in a garage. The Portland Adult Soapbox Derby made its annual hell-run down Mount Tabor last Sunday. This combination of gravity, beer and weird engineering could restore the faith of the most cynical sports fan.
For those unfamiliar with the 6-year-old competition, the Derby pits grown men and women and their home-built, non-motorized vehicles against one another in a contest of SPEED and DARING. Cars may be made of anything (wood, steel, melted vinyl LPs, etc.) so long as their materials cost less than $300 and they include some kind of brakes. The track, a long bend of pavement around Tabor's old reservoir, is about a mile long--a distance the fastest cars make in less than a minute-thirty.
Those are the basics, but they don't quite capture the Derby's evil genius. The Derby and its surrounding atmosphere have everything most sports events lack: dogs, kids, event officials in Varukers T-shirts, competitors who smoke and drink on the course, women in plaid microskirts and tank tops emblazoned "Racing Slut," other women in tops emblazoned "Team Emasculator." Churchill Downs has the mint julep; Mount Tabor has Pabst Blue Ribbon. In Kentucky, they celebrate the horsey hobby of multi-millionaires. In Portland, they celebrate the city's capacity for unbridled eccentricity.
The sunlit circus surrounding this year's Derby was only half the appeal, however. The cars themselves were awesome in speed and variety.
In one heat, a wicked-fast missile made of clear plastic vied with a coffin-shaped cart that had a grinning Death's Head spray-painted on the back, its driver stone-faced and dressed in a suit. In another, "Lou's Woody," race veteran Louis Todd's amber-polished wood torpedo, executed a beautiful pass on the course's sweeping 120-degree right-hand curve. The Woody cracked wheels with its competitor and sliced past, a move Jeff Gordon would have been glad to add to his highlight reel.
Adam Romey, a 26-year-old geology student and Derby racer, best sums up the Derby's appeal. "It's just really cool to see that people made these things," he says. "It's cool to see people aren't just sitting around watching TV, drinking beer. Well, beer is part of it, actually."
My favorite entrant was the "Elizabeth Gurley Flynn," sponsored by the worker-owned Red & Black Cafe on Southeast Division Street. The Flynn is named for a legendary Wobbly agitator and has the Industrial Workers of the World logo painted on its snub nose. As it screamed down the hill, the Flynn was perhaps not exactly what the old-time anarchos envisioned as the product of a liberated proletariat, but it was pretty damn cool.
Who won? Who cares? In the Derby, the old clichés of it's-not-whether-but-how really apply. If you go out to see the races on Tabor next August, you may experience a sensation unfamiliar to many sports fans. It's called "fun."
Overheard at the PDX Adult Soapbox Derby:
"Give us a push, someone, give us a push!"
-The driver of a critically slow vehicle creeping through the main turn of the course.
"Man, he's still going ass slow."
-Observer of said vehicle, after it had been pushed.
"I'm constantly trying to figure out how to make things better, how to re-engineer things. Drives my wife sort of nuts. Like, I'm sitting at breakfast at Beulahland the other day, and I'm looking at the legs of the table next to me, trying to figure out how to make them look better and still work. It's an obsession, definitely."
-Eric Brockman, engineer and driver of the "Honeymoon X-Press," a Derby car shaped like a bed (and co-owner of Beulahland, the Derby's home base).
IN OTHER RACING NEWS:
While the hotrodding backyard Frankensteins of the PDX Adult Soapbox Derby were preparing for their madcap conquest of Mount Tabor, your humble correspondent was moving at much slower and more painful speeds in a race of his own. The annual Hood To Coast relay, to which my discerning readership surely needs no introduction, dragged and kicked me arse from Government Camp (well, actually, I started running in Gresham) to Seaside (or close). The Willamette Week Deadliners, aided by a few ringers, managed to finish an impressive 611th out of 1,000 teams. Hurrah!
Which leads me to my main piece of business for this column's digital-only supplement: The GFW 2002 Hood To Coast Challenge. The gauntlet is hereby thrown down to the other newspapers in town. Beat our time next year, and I will personally buy several rounds of beer for your entire sports staff PROVIDED that, as is the case with WW, the entire sports staff actually runs the race. Dwight Jaynes, this means you. Chuck Culpepper, this means you. Phil Busse, by virtue of that dog-fighting article you did, this means you.
FIRST PLACE: Junkyard Lightning
SECOND PLACE: Monique
THIRD PLACE: NTC
LAME DUCK (slowest car): Alcohaulin'
BEST COSTUME: Next Level
BEST ENGINEERING: Mosquito
BEST ART CAR: H2O
BREWER'S CUP: Full Sail Brewing