Friday, July 15, 2005

Fear and Lightning at the Soap Box Derby

For racer’s in Saturday’s Jackson Soap Box Derby, gravity - from the ramps to the rain - kept its grim hold on all that participated.

It seemed a simple enough assignment: I was to judge the cars and pit tents. Which one was decorated best? Which had the higher quality design and paint job? Which kid would I send home crying, finding fault in all creatures with wheels?

The assignment was given as a part of our Breakfast Rotary Club’s participation in the Jackson Soap Box Derby Association, an organization run by former national champs Jim Sunday and Randy Denig. We provided the funds and the brute strength to get this shin-dig off the ground, literally, and my role in the grand scheme of racing was a minor one. But I could use it to my advantage. I would delve into the very fiber of soap box racing, and expose this well-worn sport’s habits and traits.

It didn’t start out as easily as I had hoped. The forecast called for thunder and rain, and when I pulled into the Jackson County Airport - site of this year’s doomed Hot Air Jubilee - the menacing clouds were holding counsel. The size of the airport is easy to grasp from the road, but once you’re inside gripping agoraphobia sets in.

"Jesus," I thought, "I can’t even see to the other side."

I asked a middle-aged man in a green volunteer shirt where I could find the race track, and he pointed in a general direction: "It’s just beyond that big white tent, on the runway." The bastard lied. It wasn’t just beyond the tent, and it took several more dipshits in green shirts and a layer of shoe rubber to find the cursed track.

When I did reach the track, I met my comrade, fellow-Rotarian and real estate broker Cliff Cole, at what was shaping up to be the start line. Men were building wooden ramps, painted green, onto flat-bed towing trucks at a 35-degree angle. When I turned my head, I saw the end of the track - the finish line - was about 400 feet away.

"There’s no way they’ll make it," I thought, "not in this humidity."

Cliff is a genial, good-humored guy, prone to sarcastic jokes and general smart-ass-ism. I liked him immediately. We were given clipboards by Nancy Sunday, another Rotarian and mother of Jim Sunday, who had given us this somber assignment. She gave us directions on where the pits would be set up, a list of drivers, and a bottle of water that was sweating as much as I was. "It’s okay to carry a clipboard," Nancy said. "It lets them know you’re coming." Great, I wondered, how would we ever sneak up on the little bastards with these things?

Jackson soap boxers, it should be mentioned, are a seasoned lot. There were champions here from the late ’60s and early ’70s, back from the time of Nixon, that were still racing. Jim Sunday, a Consumer’s Energy employee and - you guessed it - a Rotarian, was one of them. He was also de-facto leader of this outfit, and commanded respect with his neon green hat with a jolly pink pig on the front. "Nobody wonders where I’m at with this hat," Jim said. No doubt. It was this kind of seriousness that guided Cliff and I, co-judges and rookies to the grandeur of it all. We couldn’t bear to fail in our mission.

We walked around the pits, jotted notes and making comments on the aesthetic appeal of each one. Here was one where two cars were painted like a shark and a tiger, and the pit was decorated accordingly: this half with Tony the Tiger and beanie babies, this half with plastic makos, mouth agape. Another was dressed up in a Formula 1 pit motif, checkered flags and Michelin Man proudly displayed. Mario Andretti didn’t have shit on these kids.

Each car weighed in at about 200-250 lbs, with driver. Infinite rules governing wheel diameter, paint or no-paint, who built the damned thing, etc. Tracks were anywhere from 400-450 feet long, this one’s boundaries set by old racing tires. History, gravity, tradition, sportsmanship. All this was too much to take this early on a weekend.

But what, I wondered, was the appeal? Here you had whole families, taking time out of their Saturday morning to watch little Jimmy Two-by-Four head down a hill in a vehicle he would be vaporized in on any Main Street in America.

One car in particular caught my eye, so I asked the driver and his companions - they looked awfully big to be racing with the steady flow of eight and nine-year-olds - how this whole thing worked.

"It’s all gravity," Scott Denig, three-year Jackson derby champion and heir to his father, Randy Denig’s, 1973 national championship legacy. "Gravity, and getting as low as you can."

I had interrupted Scott as he was trying out the first practice run of the makeshift ramps. He wheeled down the flat-bed, head hunkered low, blue helmet freshly polished, but his car never made it to the finish line. There was no speed here. The ramp’s angle wasn’t steep enough. So they shortened the track to 200 feet.

Scott was an anomaly. Here was a ruggedly handsome kid, 15 years old, shaggy hair and Led Zeppelin shirt telling of his age, and quietly wise to the ways of soap box derbies. His pit was like trophy apocalypse: giant silver and gold stands with marble bases; here a second-place, here a first; all evidence of the type of mastery of a sport most men only masturbate to. How could a hunky kid like this benefit from all this dorkiness? It had to have been the tradition, I thought. Why else?

Scott’s mother, Cindy, handed Cliff and I an All-American Soap Box Derby rule book. While we read, four cars were having their wheels spun. "It keeps the bearings warm," Cindy told us. Even the cars warmed up.

When all the kids began practicing, the telltale storms rumbled across the airfield. It sprinkled, then rained, and some poor newspaper photographer was stuck without an umbrella. So was I, to be honest, but I had the volunteers’ tent for shelter. It didn’t ease the anxiety. After all, I was standing next to "Lightning Magnet" Cliff Cole, who told a group of us Rotarians earlier about how lightning likes to strike in his vicinity. One time, he heard a bolt strike his front-yard pine tree, vaporizing the sap inside and splitting the tree in half. Cliff said it sounded like a thousand mirrors shattering, end to end.

"I used to go to church," Cliff said, "but then my house got hit twice by lightning. I figure it works pretty good as an excuse not to go anymore."

This guy was a riot. But he wasn’t safe, not standing in a tent in a thunderstorm. We ate our boxed lunches, watching the world get wet, when Jim Sunday called off the race before the first heat sped down the ramp. The remnants of Hurricane Dennis were too much for these athletes. Tomorrow was another day.

Cliff and I headed back to our cars, a good mile away, without the benefit of cover as it rained. "You better call this lightning off," I yelled to Cliff. He couldn’t hear me over the ominous thunderclaps directly overhead.

I read in Monday’s paper how the entire Hot Air Jubilee - an orgy of hot air balloons, carnival food, and local mutants - had lost $40,000 because of the rain. The soap box racers, however, had their race.

Scott Denig won, of course, his fourth straight year as Jackson’s champion. "Rain can’t halt teen’s reign" proclaimed the newspaper’s headline. It seemed only fitting, given the family tradition he was carrying. It all added important weight to his career, and seemingly to his car. If gravity was the key to winning, and aerodynamics the skill to get you there, Scott was one road-tested kid.

Head low, speeding down the ramp, the name Denig was always in the race.

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