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Every August, dozens of adventurous Portlanders lug DIY gravity vehicles up Mt. Tabor to race.
On the third Saturday of August, thousands of spectators flood Portland’s Mt. Tabor. Groups clad in costumes of superheroes and ninja turtles trek uphill with their DIY, lavishly decorated gravity vehicles. The urban volcano of Mt. Tabor is transformed into a race course where participants compete against each other in this epic soapbox derby. But these participants aren’t kids—they’re adults. And this is the annual Portland Adult Soapbox Derby (PASD).
According to local legend, PASD founder Paul Zenk first participated in a chaotic derby that took place in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights in 1994. The air smelled of blood and beer as rickety cars wailed down the hill, sometimes colliding. And he was in awe of it all. Two years later, while drinking with his buddy Eric Foren at the Brass Horse in Portland, Zenk recalled those raucous memories, and the two decided to start their own event in the City of Roses. In the summer of 1997, six men dragged their hodgepodge inventions up Mt. Tabor. They all made it down the hill alive, and PASD was officially born.
On August 18, 2018, PASD will be old enough to drink—this year marks its 21st annual event. It’s also achieved other milestones during the past year. Though Zenk and Foren are no longer involved in the annual event, an eight-member board was organized in 2017 to ensure a safer environment for the 40+ racing teams, 100+ volunteers, and thousands of spectators cheering them on. This year, the PASD also become a 501(c)(3)—a nonprofit—so what began as an illegal yet beloved afternoon of chaos has become a legal, beloved afternoon of more contained chaos.
“For a rag-tag team of concerned derby fans, the Portland Adult Soapbox Derby board has managed to put together something wonderful, and the event continues to get better and better,” board president and longtime racer John Swanson explained. “We’re a community of racers now, not a stand-and-watch fan show. We all work on it. Racers, fans, volunteers and community businesses. It’s pretty special, and it’s very Portland.”
PASD encapsulates the city’s ethos of “Keep Portland Weird.” Racers design cars that look like Optimus Prime and transform using hydraulics or curtained bathtubs with the driving team wrapped in towels. But the most bizarre thing Swanson has seen in his 15+ derby years is “a bevy of people doing beer bongs from the leading edge of an eight-foot-long penis as the driver stood by with a helmet that looked like a scrotum.”
“A close second was the totally laced up guy, high to the bejesus on something, screaming ‘CHEEETTOOO’ from the back of an enormous, bright yellow…thing,” he adds.
Aside from its utterly peculiar nature, the free event also comprises Portland’s community-driven spirit. “Derby is a mad dash of DIY vehicles—some fully designed, hand-crafted, small-batch, artisanal speed monsters, and some shambly, slap-dash piles of glued-together garbage,” says board treasurer Jen Raynak. “And no matter the category, or level of craftsmanship, everyone is supportive of everyone else, and is quick to lend a tool or part or zip tie to keep the cars in the race.”
In its 21st year, PASD shows no signs of slowing down. Indeed, by 2020, the nonprofit is hoping to host a kids race too. “The kids’ track runs alongside part of the track we use for the adult race,” board member Jason Parrie-Turner reveals. “They built it in the ’50s when they last ran kids Soapbox derby up on Tabor. It has since gone into disrepair (though you can still see the paint from lanes). It is our plan to raise the funds to repair/resurface the track and then add a second day of racing for the kids.”
For those interested in joining the cause, sign-ups generally happen in April, with pre-registration beginning in February. Email the team, become a fan on Facebook, and peep the PASD website for updates.