Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Wheely great fun

You don’t need to travel to Ohio for some prime Soapbox Derby action this summer.

On Saturday, Open Source Gallery brings the do-it-yourself childhood hobby to the hills of South Slope for what is fast becoming a neighborhood tradition, bringing a taste of small-town America to the streets of Brooklyn.

“I want it to be a block party, a public event where everyone can come and have fun,” said Monica Wuhrer, who runs the 17th Street art space with her husband and has been holding a soapbox-building camp for the past three weeks there. “I want the race to be serious but fun, and not competitive like the championships in Ohio.”

Indeed, the winner of the derby can look forward to a big pot of ice cream for the prize, said Wuhrer.

Despite the name, soapboxes don’t actually play a part in their construction, but rather remain a nod to the derby’s beginnings, when, during the 1920s, creative, daring children would build cars out of soap crates and race them down hills. Not before long, that pastime turned into an organized sport, with sleeker, bobsled-like cars raced nationwide and culminating in a world championship, held every July in Akron, Ohio, for the past 70 years.

Here in Brooklyn, the 17th Street race is in its second year running. Nearly 40 kids are anticipated to participate this Saturday, with their creations judged based on engineering, speed and design. Limited to using only found materials in the construction, their soapboxes will consist of items like ironing boards, shelving units and even surf boards — the only other rule being no motors allowed, of course.

“They’ll all different colors, sizes, forms and types,” said Wuhrer. “That’s what makes it fun and interesting.”

Unlike last year’s event, which consisted of the racers ridden one at a time down 17th Street, the Aug. 7 derby will live up to its name and also feature a race for those speed demons with a bit of a competitive streak.

“The kids want to have more of race,” said Wuhrer. “They were complaining that last year it was a bit too calm.”

Adults are encouraged to get in the fun, too, with a separate race held after the kids’ take their soapboxes for a spin. And with the more ironic Paping Soapbox Derby quitting its underground races on Brooklyn Heights’ “Suicide Hill” two years ago, this is the only game in town,

Last year’s kid’s winner, Eli Rosenblum-Stephens, won’t be there to reclaim his title on Saturday, as he’s away at sleepaway camp (of course). So second place finisher Oscar Baldwin, Wuhrer’s 8-year-old son, looks to claim the top prize.

In the days leading up to the big derby, Baldwin was in the process of constructing his racer.

“I don’t really care what it looks like.” he said, “I just want the wheels to be really fast.”

Soapbox Derby outside Open Source Gallery [17th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues in South Slope, (646) 279-3969], Aug. 7, with the kids race at noon, adults at 1 pm. For info, go to


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