In the summer of 1997, Paul Zenk, inspired by what he saw in the Mission District of San Francisco on a previous trip, made the trek up to Mt. Tabor, in Portland, and with five of his friends started what would be deemed as the PDX Adult Soapbox Derby. What started out as a goof, fifteen years/races later, has now blossomed into a staple event and activity during Portland summers. It was once a challenge to recruit a line of racers to build cars and race down the volcanic cinder cone in the tranquil Southeast Portland neighborhood. Now, there is an extensive waiting list.

Once a year, racers ascend on Mt. Tabor to show off their creations, quench their thirst for speed and get day-drunk. Once it was a free-for-all, now it seems as if it’s fairly well-organized, while still retaining a certain Portlandia counter-culture DIY charm. I say this without any condescension whatsoever.

My friends, Aaron Abrams and Peter West, are veterans of this blood, sweat and beer (sometimes tears) circuit; having done this Derby ten consecutive years. This was my third time in attendance as a spectator/supporter. My first time at the Soapbox Derby was in 2009, I went again in 2010, I missed last year’s (2011) run. I hadn’t realized how much discipline and effort it took just to get registered for the popular event. I was under the assumption that these guys had a revolving door as return participants in the race. There isn’t any notion of seniority. As Abrams puts it, “It’s the same for OGs and newbies. It wouldn’t be fair (otherwise). Portland, Man, (it’s) an aggressively even playing field.”

From what they told me, the protocol at the beginning (when they were first getting into it) was to show up at Beulahland, a Portland coffee and alehouse, at 5AM, before work, and merely sign up. Every year it grew, so it kept getting earlier and earlier, to the point where people started camping out. The pair, known as Team Landshark, has camped out for the past six years just to get on. Some people sleep in their cars and then start to gather in front of the establishment when the time is right, passing around a flask to keep warm during the cool, early spring morning.

After they had finished their third heat to qualify for the “real” races, while dodging cars that were pulling into the pit and blocking out the boom of The Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers, I talked to them about their time in the Portland Adult Soapbox Derby. During the conversation we spoke about the carnage they experienced and/or witnessed, the enjoyment of it all, and how the event has evolved. They also set me straight on what a “hipster” actually is while giving me shit for my pathetic new moustache.

After the talk, they intimated that this might be their last run, they are possibly retiring. They are a bit long-in-tooth, both have families to take care of now, and ten years seems like a good benchmark. If it is, indeed, their last Soapbox Derby, the chapter ended poetically. Team Landshark secured a podium finish that day, coming in third, overall. Merka.

Friend and photographer, Steven Archer, took some great pictures throughout the day. Be sure to check all of those images out at the end of this post.



PDX Adult Soapbox Derby on Facebook

Watch VIDEOS of the day at our VIMEO account



TONY TRINH: This is your tenth year, this thing started in, what, 1996? (actually started in the summer of 1997)



TT: You guys have been doing this for ten years now. What inspired you guys to jump in, in 2002 (was actually 2003), and start doing this thing?

PW: I dunno, you (Abrams) found out about it, you came to me and you’re like, “Hey, I found this awesome event. People just build shit in their garage and race down a mountain. You wanna do it?” And I said, “Yeah, absolutely!”

AA: Pete knew how to do stuff.

PW: …and we just took it from there.

AA: And the inspiration was…

PW: I don’t even know where you found it.

AA: …uh, idiocy and science and beer. That was the inspiration.

TT: How has the event grown as you kind of participated in the past years? Is it different every year? Has this thing plateau’d yet or is it still growing?

AA: Well, I mean, they had to cap the number. They grew it from about 28, I think, when we first started, to 42.

PW: When we first started they had trouble filling it up and there weren’t enough people interested to do it. And over the years…

(The LRSD marching band (The Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers) is audible in the distant background and finishes with a flurry, followed by crowd applause)

AA: 42 cars now, a lot of people on a waiting list. You gotta get up at…

TT: About how many people are there on the waiting list to get in?

AA: Oh, I dunno. They have no trouble filling…if anyone ever drops out. And usually…

(The LRSD starts up again)

TT: Steve (friend and photographer) over there was saying how people have to, like, camp out at Beulahland or something to get on the list?

AA: Spend the night! Pete and I have both had to do it. Spend the night in front of Beulahland.

PW: In the last couple of years they’ve limited that a little bit. They’re trying to streamline it with all this fancy pants online stuff.

AA: It didn’t work though, this last year. The online thing didn’t work so people had to camp out anyway.

(Both laugh)

PW: You can’t get away from what it really is, just a bunch of idiots drinking beer.

AA: Yeah.

TT: What do you guys enjoy most about this whole process and this event? (Is it) the building, the competing or the gathering and event itself?

PW: Uh, I dunno, when it first started, the absolute best for me was the building.

AA: Yeah, I agree.

PW: I learned so much from building and figuring how could we make this faster, how could we make it better, look better. I kinda feel like we got to a point where we’re really happy with the car and so it’s just been kinda about tweaking and just enjoying the day now.

AA: Now it’s an excuse to go to a block party and to drink at 9:00 in the morning.

TT: You mentioned the car. The Landshark, right? This is the tenth version? How many iterations has the Land Shark gone through? Has it been structurally modified each year?

AA: Yeah, there’s been one major rebuild. We wrecked it the second year (2004) we built it.

PW: We started out as a little trike build-out with plumbing parts. Wrecked (it), got totally mangled.

TT: Plumbing parts?

PW: Like pipes and elbows just stuck together, cobbled together.

AA: Uh, it didn’t work very well but it was alright. And then we wrecked it, went in some bushes.

PW: That was year three (2005), I think.

AA: Year three, maybe. And then, uh, we rebuilt it. By that point, Pete had started building a decent shop and he had the tools. He had, you know, TIG welder, MIG welder, that kinda stuff.

TT: Have you guys ever been hurt or injured (during a race)?

PW: Yeah.

(both laugh)

AA: Not bad.

TT: What happened?

AA: We were going about 40 miles an hour and we had…

PW: A rollover.

AA: We were carrying a water cannon and about fifty to eighty pounds of extra water, plus a low tire, we came around a corner…

TT: And kinda spun out?

AA: …the weight buckled the spokes on our wheels and we flopped the thing over on the side…

PW: You could hear a “ting-ting-ting” and then CRASH!

AA: …going about 40 miles per hour we slid about a good twenty or thirty feet. My parents were sitting on the sidelines and we slid right at them. So the first thing we saw my dad running over to see if I was okay and I was like, “Oh, I wondered if I died.”

(we all laugh)

AA: Mostly all I did was skin the hell out of my arm.

PW: Yeah, just bumps, bruises. Cursing.

AA: (in a matter-of-fact tone) People have broken their legs.

TT: Yeah, I was gonna ask you, what’s the worst anybody has been injured in the history of the Soapbox Derby?

AA: There’s only been two years where the ambulance has NOT had to take somebody away (to the hospital).

PW: That was the last two years, I believe. It’s gotten safer.

AA: The worst overall injury, I think, was the guy who had his leg broken. Somebody threw a water balloon…

PW: He was a spectator (the victim).

AA: …and hit a driver in the face and he spun off into the crowd and broke a spectator’s leg.

TT: Wow.

AA: The worst one I saw was a guy fall off the back of a car and underneath the front of a Chevy. Somebody had built the front end of a Chevy and he, uh, had road rash from about his shoulder to legs and he was pouring gin…

TT: To clean out his wound?

AA: They were pulling him into an ambulance as he was pouring gin (on his body) and drinking it.

TT: Some impromptu triage?

(Pete and I laugh)

AA: Yeah. He was drinking from the bottle and then pouring it on himself.

TT: Was that one of the most memorable moments (within the history) of the Derby?

(spectators can be heard yelping, howling and hollering in background)

AA: That was the last…they used to, before it was super dangerous…well, they realized it was dangerous (back then)…at the end of it everyone had to do what was called “The Gauntlet”. Everyone races down at once. That was just a real “shit show”. There were dozens of cars crashing into the crowd and wrecking each other and that guy fell off the back of one car. That was actually very scary.

TT: That’s crazy.

AA: (with a smirk) Fortunately, Pete, our driver, was lubricated enough (intoxicated) to steer us through with only minimal issues.

TT: Is Pete always driving?

AA: Pete’s always been the driver, yeah.

TT: Why is that?

AA: Because it’s his shop and he had the expertise.

TT: What’s the most memorable vehicle that you have witnessed or seen, besides the Landshark, art (category) or science (category) car?

AA: I would say the suspension bridge one.

PW: Yeah, that was incredible.

TT: Describe it to me. I don’t think I saw that one.

PW: It was entirely built out of pretty small gauge, I’m guessing like, uh…

TT: Cable?

AA: It was like Eiffel Tower lattice-style.

PW: 3/4 inch, 3/8 inch, uh…

(A car pulls into the pit next to us, “WATCH OUT BEHIND YOOOU!”)

PW: But it was built, in a, um, like an arch, like a suspension bridge…

TT: Okay.

PW: …that folded in half, while the guy was standing, he would clip himself into this and then it would unfold and he would be suspended underneath this bridge.

AA: He was wearing a parachute suit and he hung himself probably less than two inches…

TT: Suspended like a hammock?

AA: No, no, no.

PW: It would be like putting hooks in the back of his suit….

TT: Oh, wow.

PW: …and then hooking into it.

AA: So he was hanging face first, about an inch or two off of the ground, with his hands in front of him flying like Superman.

PW: It was incredible. I have never seen anything like it.

AA: The fact that he actually made it down the hill without losing his shit.

TT: So when are they gonna get cyborg and start hooking into people’s (body) piercings?

(Pete laughs)

AA: Who says they haven’t?

TT: Have they? Keep Portland weird, right? Keep Portland weird.

PW: I wouldn’t put it past anybody here.

AA: I dunno, is this “weird”?

TT: I dunno, it’s kinda cool, fun and interesting. Speaking of “Keep Portland Weird”, how hipster is this thing on a scale of one-to-ten?

AA: I don’t think it is because hipsters don’t make things.

TT: Wow, that’s a statement.

PW: Hipsters just complain about things.

AA: They just complain or consume but they don’t make. Also, I don’t believe there’s such a thing as hipsters, I just think it’s just kids being kids.

TT: So we’re just keeping it real?

AA: Keeping it real. I think it’s, maybe, approximately as hipster as your terrible moustache. (shots fired)

(everyone laughs, but mostly them)