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Downhill Challenge Soapbox Derby
The Starlight Drive In
November 2008

Text and photos by Frederick Noble

This was the third annual Downhill Challenge and every year they change the date. It started in spring, if I remember correctly, then moved to around July 4, and this year it was in the fall. I doubt this was to give more time for contestants to build their cars, as I'm pretty sure some of the cars were built that day in the parking lot while waiting to get registered. Some of these craft are decidedly low-tech.

Some of them are even no-tech, like this beauty. it's big, it's heavy, it's wood!

On the other end of the spectrum are the folks who come with cars that aren't just high-tech, they're high-concept, like the car in the form of a coffin that was carried up the hill by a funeral procession.

The thing I liked best about it is that it was raced in closed casket form.

Also thematically appropriate was this Kamikazi cart:

which was raced head-first:

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, the cars were lined up in order of the first batch of races, which also gave spectators a chance to cruise through pit row and check out the vehicles.

Another of my favorites, a memorial to Evel Knievel.

Some bands were on stage in the parking lot, but I ignored them in favor of lurking in the press pit so I could get decent shots of the action. About that time the sky clouded over and spit chilly rain for a moment, but eventually the clouds were chased off by a cold wind and things got underway.

Another of my favorites, a giant skull, was in the first race. It proved to be remarkably fast and survived a few rounds.

Kids of all ages participate in the event.

This little guy crashed after crossing the finish line but rolled over and jumped up, arms raised, like most everyone else.

Rodney, a long-time Drive Invader, had a hand in building this Ab-Lounger-based contraption.

Important lesson: wheelchair wheels to not function well at high speeds. The rubber comes off the rim.
This was proven several times by several different vehicles.

The wheelchair-wheel-based cart on the right lost it's rubber about the time it crossed the finish line, but managed to keep moving, unlike it's skateboard-based competitor.

Another important lesson - test drive your cart. I lost count of the number of vehicles that proved to be unsound on their first attempt.

This giant carrot, driven by a giant bunny, left the competition behind.

I was curious about the rules regarding vehicles with sails, but they let this one fly, racing against a surfboard with some serious dragster wheels attached.

Evel Knievel raced against a cart made up to look like the death car from Animal House. Unfortunately, they removed the cylindrical turret before the race. Also unfortunately, they couldn't keep the car pointed straight on their second race...


I'm curious if the rules state that both car and driver have to cross the line, or if this counts...

A test drive wouldn't only give you a chance to discover any construction or design flaws,
it would also give you some experience behind the wheel. Or behind the 2x4.
Regardless, you should have a vague understanding of how the cart works, especially at high speed...

And here's why you are required to wear a helmet, and why you should make sure it's strapped on.
Before:

After:

Apparently this guy showed up without a helmet, was resistant to wearing one, and refused to strap it on. This cost him not only a hunk of his face, scraped off on the pavement, but a good hour or more delay in the races. Then the organizers were tempted to call off the rest of the day, which would've meant a lot of folks never would've gotten to race.
Enjoy your road rash, asshole.

(And yes, participants are required to sign a waiver.)

There were a few multiple versions of the same idea, and I'm not talking about traditional streamlined soapbox derby cars. There were 2 A-Team vans, and 2 coffins. This one raced against a piece of plywood that was screwed to a skateboard and attached to a pipe with some bike tires, I think moments before it was shoved down the hill the first time. Did I mention that you should test drive these things to ensure their high speed capabilities?

Skull vs. Skull!

Man vs. gravity!

There were several races that were literally photo finishes. Unfortunately, the organizers didn't have good time keeping methods so it was impossible to really know who won. Sure, everyone is really in it to have a good time, but I'm a competitive sort and if I went through all the effort to make a car, I'd want to know how I actually did.

There were a couple of races I think were mis-called, and the time-keeping method relied on two people with stop watches, one for each line, resulting in 4 possible human errors (start and stop x2). There has got to be a better ssystem, at least to start both timers simultaneously, and it would've been nice to have a radar gun to know just how fast these things were going.

Though this year things felt more regimented - I got ordered around a lot more and there seemed to be organizers or volunteers everywhere telling people what to do - somehow they felt less organized. But like everyone, I had a swell time, despite the chilly weather. In the end, I think it was the Evel Knievel car that won the whole thing. I didn't catch the official announcement before I decided to split.

Like every year, I half-considered getting motivated to build a car for next year but I know myself better than that. I already have too many of time-and-money-consuming hobbies...


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