Soup Box Derby to return

The '70s aren't dead on South Whidbey.

This fall, a short-lived but well-remembered fixture of that decade, the Soup Box Derby, will come back to Langley for another running. Scheduled for Sept. 14 and sponsored primarily by the Langley Community Club, this year's derby will commemorate some fun and crazy memories from 30 years ago.

The Soup Box Derby got its start in 1972 as an unusual soap box derby car race in which creativity was valued over speed. Run on Langley's First Street hill, the event featured rolling bakeries, vehicles that resembled high-speed conga lines, and even a few designs that looked like they belonged in the air or in the water, not on wheels.

Tucker Stevens, president of the Langley Community Club, said he decided to revive the derby after watching early Soup Box Derby runnings in a home video of the event.

"The club was trying to think of promotional activities for the community," Stevens said. "One thing led to another and we ended up watching a video of the old derbies. It looked like a fun idea."

But that video, which is in the hands of just a few South Whidbey residents, doesn't tell the story of how the Soup Box Derby came to be. According to Langley's Leonard Good, who made his fame in the derby with a biplane-shaped entry in 1973, a Californian named Scott Freutel is to blame. Freutel, a self-proclaimed hippie, opened a restaurant on the corner of First Street and Anthes Avenue in Langley that year. The establishment, called the Soup Coop (pronounced k-oo-p), established a reputation for serving anyone and everyone, especially people involved in the counterculture.

"The Soup Coop served good food, priced inexpensively," said Sue Ellen White, a witness to the restaurant's years. "It hosted music events, engagements parties, and also acted as a community center."

The Soup Coop was also where the idea for the Soup Box Derby was hatched.

The race was sponsored and conceived by the cooperation of community members who ran the restaurant, as well as a community arts organization called the Fools. Intended to be a fun and creative outlet for those "counter-culture" folks, the original Soup Box Derby lasted just three years.

Good, himself, participated in the last two derbies, entering an infamous bi-plane vehicle -- which had a wing-span of 28-feet -- in 1973. The contraption was more flash than dash.

"Technically, it was a speed race," Good said. "But it was very loose.

There were a few guidelines. Participants had to equip their vehicles with brakes, wear helmets, and have a method of steering.

With an average of 20 entries a year, there was award for nearly everyone who entered the derby. The awards list included "Most Likely to Leave The Planet," "Most Suicidal," and "Most Ecological."

"It's a fun, frivolous event," Good said. "Some go for speed, so go for fun. It sort of a reaction to the competitive world of sports and money, like a mock of competition."

For unknown reasons, the event did not resurface for many years after its 1974 running. Some people who were there at the beginning have their own theories as to why it was discontinued.

"Perhaps it was because of the little collision I had one year with another racer and his entry," Good said jokingly.

Sue Ellen White thought the race's demise had to do with the changing era.

"It was sort of a transition time," she said. "Times were changing. People were becoming busier."

The derby was revived in 1992 as a sort of reunion to bring together participants and attendees of the earlier races.

Whether or not the 2002 race is an isolated occurrence, much of the past will be infused into this year's event. While some things like stricter safety regulations will may change this year's derby, derby participants and onlookers can expect a day of logic-defying downhill racing, a parade, custom-made trophies, a pot-luck dinner, and a dance to end the day. All of it promises to bring the South Whidbey community together, organizers say, which is the event's original purpose will not have changed.

"The main idea is that it is an event for and by the community," Sue Ellen White said. "It is all in the spirit of fun."

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