More Than a Box and Wheels

I asked Christian Hawkins, a five-time racer, “How scared were you the first time you dropped off the ramp?”

“Really scared.”

“And the second time?”

He shrugs his shoulders. “Not at all.”

So here’s the scene. .

You climb onto “The Ramp” with your cart. “The Ramp” is a trailer with four painted wood and metal ramps dropping steeply off the downhill side. Each individual ramp has side rails to keep you on track and a metal stop bar sticks up in the middle. You put the nose of your cart against the metal stop bar on your assigned ramp and slide into the seat.

You look down. The ramp drops like a cliff toward the blacktop. The lane stripes on the road swing first to the left and then to the right, disappearing around the curve to a finish far below. You know how far because you just hauled your cart up the hill. It’s a long ways. You look at the insulation bales lining the course and wonder how soft they really are and if they will really help if you go off course. You shake your head. I don’t think so. There are no brakes, just your old pair of skate shoes. You’re sitting on a piece of plywood with a wheel on each corner and a little steering wheel seeming to be too close to your chest.

It’s warm. You hear the muffled voice of the announcer at the bottom of the hill listing the heat and who’s in each lane. You hear music and above that cheering.

You are about to start your first soapbox derby and this was a stupid idea. You are about to drop off a cliff.

“Are you ready?”

You lean back, holding the steering wheel in your hands. Too late now.

“Ready”

“Set”

“Go.”

With a loud clank, the stop falls and you careen toward the blacktop. There’s a bit of a wobble and then you find your groove, swinging left, then right, the finish banner is ahead and past overhead. You drop your feet to the blacktop, slow and finally stop feeling the heat of the pavement through the soles of your shoes.

It wasn’t so bad. And man, that was fast.

You step out of your cart, grab the nose and head up the hill for your next heat. Gotta get rid of that wooble.”

In eight short years, the Soapbox Derby stands (runs?) as a Fernie institution. It’s on a par with the Demo Derby, but for kids.

The brainchild of Butch Coultry with the broad support of volunteers from of the Knights of Columbus and across the community, September 25 will be the eighth running of the Fernie Soapbox Derby.

For 15 years Butch and his family made the weekend trek to Fernie From Okatoks. Nine years ago, finally seeing the light, they moved down full time. That first year, Butch noticed there was no summer event for kids in town. Lots of stuff for adults, but no neat kid deal. His daughter L’wren was the first girl to win the Okatoks Soapbox Derby and then continued to win for another two years. Her three-peat winnings of the Okatoks Soapbox Derby remains un-matched.

The Derby format is little changed since the first run in Ohio in 1936. A hill. Heats of drivers in homemade carts. Some of the parameters have changed. Today you must use the official Soapbox Derby wheels and steering mechanism. The car and driver cannot weigh more than 250 pounds total. Drivers must be between nine and 14 on the day of the race. All in all, that’s about it. The cart design is open to the driver/team.

The first year there were 84 racers. Every year since more than a hundred kids have raced. The racers run in heats of four, four times. Then the top racers in each set advance to a final series of heats.

When you ask Butch what’s the one thing you think of when you think of the Derby, he responds without hesitation

“Kids. It’s all about the kids.”

And this is how it all starts. On a hill near Castle Mountain, in Fernie, BC.

You’re gonna drive me to drinkin’ if you don’t stop drivin’ that hot rod Lincoln.
- Charlie Ryan’s “Hot Rod Lincoln”, as recorded by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen