by Alina Konevski
There are few opportunities in the modern world for kids to careen down roads in homemade carts at 45 km/h.
“It basically started out as kids building a car with four wheels and driving down a hill as fast as possible,” said Remco Bergman, president of the Mission & District Soapbox Derby Association.
The soap box cars, usually made of wood, are simple, gravity-fed vehicles in which kids aged 8-14 sit or lie feet-first. The fastest to the finish line at the end of the 600-metre route on Stave Lake Street on Aug. 24 wins.
The Mission Soapbox Derby stretches back to 1947, and kept strong through several decades. It even attracted 20,000 people in 1956, overshadowing the Strawberry Festival. But interest gradually declined until the derby dissolved in 1974. Bergman attributes this to the practical difficulty of building and storing soap box cars. Then in 1999, community groups decided to reinstate the sport on its home turf after a quarter century absence.
Ever since, the local derby has been growing stronger. A big reason is the association’s expanding collection of cars that riders can use on race day. This means that kids no longer have to spend countless hours, under the supervision of an understanding parent, to build wooden boxes with wheels. It also means that parents don’t have to figure out where to store the two-metre by one-metre creations.
The Mission & District Soapbox Derby Association now has a stable of 15 cars. About 70 per cent of participants make free use of them. They take turns, with each participant receiving several rides.
Kids must wear helmets, and goggles and pads are recommended. Participants are strapped in the car with a seatbelt. Their hands are also tied to the steering wheel. This, Bergman has found, is much safer because it keeps kids in the car during a potential crash, preventing them from instinctively bracing themselves outside the vehicle and causing injuries.
The 600-metre stretch of Stave Lake Street is lined with 1,400 hay bales.
All cars must pass inspection before being allowed on the track. Those participants who want to ride in a borrowed car are properly fitted to one according to size. And all cars are constantly re-checked in between the races.
“We take care of the kids from start to finish,” said Bergman.
He wants parents to drop off their kids, and relax in the viewing area while the organizers and volunteers handle everything. Even when the kids drive down the hill, they need only to walk up for the second ride. Their cars will be carried up on flatbed trucks.
True to tradition, however, one-third of kids and their families still build their own soap box cars. Some are built for high performance, with bodies made out of carbon fibre or kevlar.
All participants walk away rewarded at the event that’s “absolutely phenomenal for the kids,” said Bergman. It’s medals and T-shirts all around. There are trophies for those who place.
The big prize, however, is a $500 grant towards education for the overall fastest rider. And because so many participants are from out of town, there’s another $500 for the fastest rider from Mission. The participant elected most sportsman-like will receive a new bicycle.
Outside of the races, there will be a pudding-eating contest for the little kids, and a hot dog-eating contest for the older ones.
And for the first time ever, the fun isn’t reserved for kids. Those over 14, including full-fledged adults, are welcome to hop into a modified, much larger soap box car to do their own race. The opportunity is a direct reply to parents who have approached organizers saying that if they could fit in the car, they’d do it in heartbeat.
Although the registration cut-off has passed, Bergman hates turning people away. Those wishing to enrol their kids, or themselves in the event, and reserve a car spot, should contact the association at email@example.com. Participation is $25 per child, and $100 per adult. Cost includes lunch. Watching is free.
On Aug. 24, participants should arrive at 7 a.m. In case of rain, the event will be moved to Sep. 14.