Brakes optional, creativity mandatory

Racers prepare for annual soapbox derby

BRATTLEBORO — Finding one's way to a “build party” work session for soapbox derby vehicles proves easy.

All you need to do is look for the pickup truck with a bed full of scrap metal, plastic pipe, and other objects.

These materials might well be recycled - through ingenuity, artistry, and sheer force of will - into gravity-propelled go-carts and raced in the annual Kornguth's Soapbox Derby at the Exit 1 Industrial Park on Sunday, Aug. 18.

The ringleader of the handful of go-cart builders is Daniel Kornguth, a co-founder of the event, which has taken place almost every year since 2007 and has drawn up to 35 entrants and 100 spectators.

The race is now part of a New England circuit, and the Brattleboro racers maintain what Kornguth, by day an artist with a studio in the Cotton Mill, describes as a “friendly rivalry” with a similar race in Montague, Mass.

As he points out the intricacies of a completed go-cart made from interconnected PVC pipe, Kornguth immediately points out two rules for the race: no dying and no killing.

“We're very strict about that,” he says dryly.

Racing these vehicles is not for the faint of heart. The sport is inherently dangerous, with virtually no safety restrictions on the creativity of the amateur engineers. Brakes and steering, for instance, are only recommendations.

Eric Matt recalls a previous race with one entrant creating a vehicle from a supermarket carriage and a Razor scooter.

“That was the most scary one,” he says.

The work sessions let racers offer one another advice and collaborative ingenuity in making go-carts that at the very least won't kill them.

Bob Streim good-naturedly adjusts a wheel with a screwdriver, pointing out the concept of a pivot point, which if not calculated correctly will create the effect of a wobbly wheel on a shopping cart.

There is no limit to the amount of time and money people spend on their carts, says Kornguth, adding that people put energy into different aspects of their carts, making them stand out for design innovations, safety features, and creative artistic quality.

And speed.

“We're the fastest soapbox derby on the East Coast,” Kornguth says, noting that racers in past competitions have clocked speeds at almost 50 mph.

That is, if they make it to the finish line.

Kornguth praised Saturn Milner, another co-founder of the derby, for his “radical, fearless design concepts,” but noted that “he's made it down the hill maybe twice.”

A few other key rules for the creations: No motor or propulsion other than gravity. Not two wheels. (One wheel is fine; three or more are standard.) Small enough to be lifted by two people and fit into the cab of a pickup truck.

Matt says his goal is simple.

“I want someone to look at it and say, 'You can't do that,'” he says. “And then they see it go down the hill.”

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