Soap Box Derby – The Thrill of It All

Soap Box Derby – The Thrill of It AllFor years, sports fanatics have debated which is the most exciting spectator sport. Some argue nothing beats football for sheer intensity and physicality. Others point to the gladiator-like combat of hockey. And some people prefer badminton, but then, some people are idiots. For me, it’s female mud wrestling. I really don’t think I should have to explain this.

But recently I came upon one more contender for your consideration: Soap Box Derby racing. Before you scoff, hear me out. A few weeks ago, I attended the 11thAnnual Stanwood-Camano Island Soap Box Derby – the only such event in the entire state of Washington. When I heard the race was coming to town, I immediately submitted my application as a last-minute entry. Alas, I just missed the competition age limit (by 550 months – oh, so close).

First a bit of background. The Soap Box Derby is a racing program for kids ages 7 through 17, which has been run throughout the United States since 1934. The National Championship Finals are held each July at Derby Downs in Akron, Ohio. Racers compete in ultra-lightweight unpowered vehicles which they have built themselves, traversing a gentle incline over the space of roughly 1,000 feet, relying on their driving skills and gravity to reach the finish line first.

Having neglected to educate myself on the rich history and subtle nuances of this sport, I had no idea what to expect. I apparently arrived too late to catch the live pre-event concert by the Beach Boys. But what I did see was a colorful parade of home-built cars – 72 in all – each one sponsored by a different local business, like Camano Hardware, the Kiwanis Club, and Rothschild Estates’ White Swan Polo Club.

The competitors took great pride in their vehicles, having sawed, sanded, glued and painted them with only a little help from mom or dad. The Rothschild Estates entry, however, drew a few murmurs as the it appears the family’s footman clearly played a hand in its construction.

When the gun goes off, two underage drivers barrel down a straight asphalt track divided by a double yellow line. Miraculously, there were no serious injuries and not a single altercation among any of the kids. The only ruckus took place at the concession among a group of testosterone-driven dads over who had done a better job painting flames on the side of his kid’s car.

In other good news, not a single racer was eliminated for any performance-enhancing substances (the dads weren’t tested). However, there was one anxious moment when an 11-year-old boy was almost disqualified minutes before the start of his heat, due to sudden manic and erratic behavior. Turns out he was suffering from a nasty brain freeze from the strawberry Slurpee he’d just chugged a little too fast. After a few anxious moments he was fine.

It was fun watching these kids zoom down the track. Okay, perhaps zoom is overstating it slightly. Maybe “glide with an occasional careen” would be a more accurate description – sort of like my mother charging around the nursing home in her wheelchair.

Perhaps it wasn’t the adrenaline-pumping action of the Indianapolis 500 – or even the 5th Annual Las Vegas Female Mud Wrestling Finals. But it was still a kick to see the excitement in these kids’ eyes as they leaned forward, urging their cars to the finish line.

Sadly, one exuberant competitor was just about to win when she applied her brakes a few feet too early, letting the other race car eclipse her at the finish. Happily, she qualified for a consolation round, so her racing day was not over.

When I was the age of these dare-devils, I too tried my hand at building a blazing fast racing machine. I cobbled together a discarded bike frame and a lawn mower engine to create a motorized mini-cycle. Having inadvertently installed the engine on the frame backwards, the only direction the bike would go was in reverse (true). My maiden voyage only lasted about ten seconds, as I quickly wiped out and scraped my knees badly. Alas, my dreams of racing glory died forever that day.

At the soap box derby, by the afternoon’s end, two elated winners took home trophies and the chance to advance to the Nationals in Akron. I walked away thinking Soap Box Derby racing was actually pretty cool… and wouldn’t it be even cooler if they held the entire competition in a giant mud field like the female mud wrestlers? Yeah, now that would be something I’d watch for sure.

That’s the view from the bleachers. Perhaps I’m off base.

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