Plywood physics

Racing in a soapbox derby is more difficult&emdash;and rewarding&emdash;than you may think

The first thing that you notice upon watching your first soapbox derby is how competitive it seems. "The car in lane one took it by two hundredths," comes an announcement.

"If you think our timing's that good," quips the event's M.C., "you're crazy."

Nevertheless, races between cars usually run neck-and-neck, and most of the drivers and teams have brought along their own cheering sections. Despite the fact that the race only runs for the length of one downhill stretch, there's as much fan participation as in any other type of (motorized) race. The runs average around twenty seconds each.

More so in this one, the thirty-first annual Big Brothers of Metro Toronto Gravity Grand Prix. The brothers are all decked out in their finest yellow, blue, black and red uniforms and the cars all have a fresh coat of paint and sponsorship stickers (Midas is this year's title sponsor.) I'm told that many of the big and little brothers have been working on them all year.

It shows, too. You very quickly gain an appreciation of the engineering that goes in to many of these cars, despite their lack of engines or any other kind of power or electrical equipment.

Cars are bedecked with spoilers and airfoils, and steering systems rely on intricately routed wires that pull on the sides of plywood panels, which in turn are attached to shaved-down lawn mower wheels. While most of their bodies are formed of plywood panels, a few of them have custom-formed fiberglass bodies, even with plexiglas windows in place.

No disc brakes or ABS here; braking is usually accomplished by a drop-down flap with a piece of rubber to rub the ground, or a bar connected to shins that contact the wheels. (Hey, they work.)

The cars are styled with as much exuberance as other race cars, perhaps more so because kids have been at work: there's a gray car called Jaws, a dorsal fin perched defiantly on its wooden hood; another car is a fiberglass reproduction of a rocket ship, complete with guidance system. A quarter-scale Batmobile.

"The Cobra" has a snake made out of beads curling over its front wheels. There's a brown-and-white football. The fastest car of the practice runs is a hot-purple apparition with a towering rear spoiler. There's even a "427cc" soapbox, complete with huge hood scoop, supercharger boost gauge attached with duct tape, distributor cap with one spark plug wire hanging loose, and intricate exhaust piping running down its sides. (The car was to be driven by Alan Tonks, a no-show; a little brother ended up racing it to seventh place.)

Getting a soapbox to perform is difficult, more difficult than getting a real car to go. Launching is a delicate act of steering wheel movement, butt-wagging and upper-body heaving, not just stepping on the gas. Lean down and hunch over the steering wheel for optimum aerodynamics, I'm told.

The steering in the cars is direct and hypersensitive: at moderate speeds, even the smallest steering movement produces a huge amount of yaw. (During the Great Election Race, the Mayor of East York spun into the haybales at the end of the course.)

As the cars reach the bottom of the hill at their top speed, their front ends get light and they wobble violently. Braking is a lot more difficult than in a regular car; there's no power assistance, and you pull on a lever instead of stepping on a pedal.

Turnout for the event was phenomenal, despite the absence of a couple of media and political luminaries. There were a good fifty custom-built cars in attendance, and races ran all day until five in the afternoon.

The atmosphere was always friendly, relaxed, and completely free of the bad blood that you'll find at other races where one spectator likes one driver and the next likes another, and they end up shouting at each other: all of the spectators like all of the drivers&emdash;heck, they're all the pit crew.

There's a place for everyone here, and perhaps that's the lesson that Big Brothers would like you to take away with you. They're always looking for new recruits and are already planning next year's race. If you'd like to get involved, or even want to join the Soapbox Derby Committee, give them a call at (416) 925-9891. They're waiting for your call.

I'll tell you one thing&emdash;I want to drive next year.


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