Postcards: In NASCAR’s Shadow
Marble Falls offers a twist on the old-school soapbox derby
By John Morthland
The second annual Marble Falls Soapbox Classic should confirm once again that men will be boys—and, yes, women will be girls, albeit in lesser numbers. Adult soap box derby competitors will be off and wobbling down Third Street in downtown Marble Falls over Father’s Day weekend, June 17-19.
In 2010’s inaugural race, 27 cars raced down the steep hill and across the newly reopened Third Street Bridge, and the fastest of these unlikely racing vehicles accelerated to almost 35 mph, according to the radar guns of Marble Falls policemen. Among the competitors appeared such beauts as the hydraulically sleek Mike’s Bike; the doomy Cowboy Coffin, a casket-shaped racer driven by Aaron Heep and sponsored by Dirt Nap Racing; Paddy Wagon, a well-peopled rolling jail cell driven by Sam Giddens; Crap Shoot, an exquisitely baby blue porta-potty turned on its side and driven by Walter Dulin; along with various other Rube Goldberg contraptions and flame-spewing boxes of various sizes, shapes, and colors. The 2010 event, which included street vendors and nightly bands, drew about 600 spectators. And now that people in the Hill Country know what an adult soap box derby is—there are only three others around the nation—organizers are anticipating more than twice as many entries this year.
The maiden derby came about when Shannon Heep, then executive director of the town’s Historic Main Street Association, was searching for an event to replace the art and blues festivals of previous years in order to raise money for downtown businesses staggered by the national recession and the local flood of 2007. (The latter left the Third Street Bridge closed until just two weeks before the races.) Russell Buster, who runs the R Bar and Grill and the Uptown Marble Falls Theater, mentioned to Heep that townspeople had speculated half-seriously for years about racing cars down the Third Street slope, and that he had witnessed such an event around a volcano in Portland, Oregon, which proved to be big fun. Heep ran with the idea.
“The hardest part was just explaining it to people, because it was confusing,” she recalls. “A music or art festival they can imagine in their heads. But when you say you want to build miniature cars and race them down Third Street, they can’t picture that. Once they understood what we meant, everything changed: When the community is your entertainment it’s a different kind of event than a music festival, where the community is the spectator.”
For a while, plans looked iffy. Though townspeople began acquiring scrap material and building and test-driving cars, most apparently wanted their rides to be a surprise—95 percent of the entries signed up in the final two days before registration closed. And when the big weekend finally arrived, they definitely provided their share of the proverbial thrills and chills:
Spectacular crashes rocked downtown. Well, one crash, anyhow. Lucas Oil’s Yellow Terror, its wheels wobbling haplessly as it accelerated down the hill, finally did a 180-degree spin into homebuilder Grant Dean’s Red Hot Rod, driven by his son Travis Dean. Then the racer bounced off, and whirled a 360 in the other direction before veering off the road. “That was the only wreck,” Heep sighs, “though I would’ve liked to see more; we thought there’d be a bunch.” Fortunately, human injuries were limited to scratches and scrapes.
Dean, meanwhile, recovered impressively. In fact, the two Deans, racing the Red Hot Rod and the Son of a Gun, were the weekend’s big winners. When the finals ended Sunday afternoon, they’d taken first and third in the General Downhill Competition’s Division A: Slalom (in which cars zig-zagged among three py--lons), first in the Division B: Downhill Run (a straight shot), and second in the Jamaican Competition’s Division A: Slalom. (In Jamaican, the individual who pushes the car to the beginning of the hill to get it started then jumps aboard and rides with the driver.) The Deans also bagged the Showmanship trophy. Grant Dean built his two racers by refashioning carnival-ride junker cars. This year he’ll enter three.
Scores were settled. Grant Dean and Bernie Sachs, whose Mustang Lube sponsored his Bernie’s Bullet, trash-talked and badmouthed each other relentlessly for weeks before the starter’s flag dropped. In the end, Sachs’ car—fueled, he claims, by pancakes and beans—managed only a solitary Team award. “I told him all he’d see is my rear end, and that’s pretty much how it turned out,” Grant Dean gloats.
Sachs, for his part, isn’t finished. “Grant won under unfair
circumstances. Number One, he bought his car off the Internet; he didn’t build
it from scratch but only modified it,” Sachs insists. “Number two, and this is
his most grievous
Sachs vows that this year’s Son of Bernie’s Bullet—with its modified frame and new axle—will be three or four mph faster, enough to give the Deans their comeuppance. “I want Grant Dean to eat my dust,” he declares.
Gender barriers fell. Debbie Lynn, whose racer, Lickety
Split, was sponsored by her employer the R Bar, was the sole female entry.
Alas, she overturned and spilled out near the finish line, enduring some
annoyingly ignominious bruises.
Like several others, he was later heard muttering incantations about next year, and his Water Hole Special #2 is designed with better weight distribution and new brakes. Like most of the cars that ran last year, the derby itself is now being modified. It’s organized by the newly formed National Adult Soap Box Derby Association, with Heep still serving as executive director. There will five pylons (rather than three) to negotiate on the slalom, and the General Downhill will get cars rolling with a drop-gate rather than pushers. For Russell Buster and other daredevils, Next Year is Now.
From the June 2011 issue.