The Greatest Amateur Racing Event in the World

So before, when I was discussing the ever-so hand made grit of the Vermont creative scene I don't think I did it justice...but, yesterday proved another day of intense creativity that one can really only experience at these great mountain heights, SOAPBOX DERBY heights that is! After a visiting friend spotted a poster up on a local food co-op bulletin board announcing that Kornguth's Annual Soapbox Derby was to be taking place during his visit we both sped through a little brunch and then raced over to Brattleboro Vermont to meet the high noon event deadline, nearly lodging my car in a ditch out of lack of places to park & fear of missing the opening ceremonies that were taking place in a nearby Industrial Park, a place where all Derby related things came to a halt to let through the constant stream of bread trucks for a bakery factory whose wheels needed to keep turning even in the mid August sun!

First though, due to my own lack of knowledge/interest about the American Soap Box Derby culture let me give a little background on the sport. Starting in 1934, even preserved early on in Chaplin-celluloid, Soap Box racing was an American phenomenon, reaching it's peak in Akron Ohio in the 60s with over 70,000 spectators and bringing Jimmy Stewart plays to a halt in the 40s with it's overwhelming popularity! This type of racing began in the 30s as children looked to the ever increasing car culture for inspiration (and adults looked to urge children into more social yet competitive activity- even the WPA took on Derby duty in the name of social progress!), taking it upon themselves to make replicas of actual cars to get in on the action, replicas made out of everything from discarded saloon wood, to milk crates, to baby carriages to, yes, maybe even soap boxes. This spirit of making something recycled, creating out of refuse, is more than alive in these newer iterations as I witnessed shopping carts, wheelbarrows, wire spools, and lawn chairs prominently on display!

So what exactly makes a soap box car a soap box car? Well, it can't have a motor and must run (or should I say hurtle?) on the forces of gravity alone! Beginning at the top of a steep hill the races force these little wheeled vehicles (usually of 1, 3 or 4 wheels) down through the mighty force of physics, and also by the mild guidance of axles by the (please wear a) helmet clad drivers! The exact specifications of the cars have developed over time (check them out, they are pretty neat), fine tuning the requirements as safety increased and fairness prevailed in the face of many unfolding scandals (one scandal even involved the use of electromagnets and a headrest activator that would force the cheating cars towards the metallic finish line faster, soon thwarted by the implementation of electromagnetic blockers at races-aka big pieces of metal- to throw these cars into a tailspin instead of towards the trophy)!

This particular Vermont event included a DJ, live music, food (including a -drool- amazing Thai food truck), and the emcee- Kornguth himself (a local artist of sorts who runs/organizes the annual event). Watching onlookers slicing up watermelon and sharing this experience with their kids was amazing too, especially after a tragic crash involving a tree & an out of control car- you know you are in the wild kindness of Vermont when upon learning the crasher did not have insurance a woman was already in fundraising mode.

It was an all day event and I left before the elaborate trophy display (pictured at top in front of a man spinning tunes) was doled out but, I did stay long enough to witness the deep and proud history and legacy of soap box derby culture- a thing that I am sooooo going to be a part of in the future! This event really captured the kind of American spirit that I think I am constantly looking for out here in the world, one of freedom, innovation, lawlessness, speed and creativity that was once the foundation of our nation, a foundation that has slowly been eroded away by fear, money, plastic and a guardedness that I only hope can repair itself one soap box derby at a time! I'm not one for being super political over here but with the election quickly approaching I just want to ask all of you out there: would you rather be afraid of the soap box or build your own? Choose wisely folks! Derby days in the verdant inclines of a real American past that I can only hope will continue into the future!





 

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