Soup Box Derby brings past to present

No license was required to drive on Langley's First Street hill Saturday afternoon. Nor were driving skills.

Thirty years after a few fun-loving islanders ran a bunch of makeshift, gravity-powered contraptions down the street in the first Langley Soupbox Derby, a few of the original racers and a bunch of new thrill seekers were back to relive 1972 in the fifth-ever but 30th anniversary of the event.

Cars of all shapes, speeds and degrees of quirkiness showed up at the starting line for a noon start in front of a crowd of several hundred people. Racing in pairs on an emptied, but straw-bale-lined street, the Soup Box racers brought back memories of a time when Whidbey Island seemed a little smaller and not so serious.

Tucker Stevens, president of the Langley Community Club -- the organization that got the anniversary race going after a 10-year hiatus -- said he found the day dreamlike.

"I don't believe it," he said, even as he chased his own derby car, driven by someone else, down the street.

The derby, which was named after the former Soup Coop restaurant once located at the corner of Anthes and First streets, drew a curious crowd looking for laughs. After watching island residents roll by in giant carrots, on wheeled bed frames and in a slug-shaped vehicle called the Slimemobile, Redmond resident Greg Page said he and his wife were glad they made a weekend trip to the island at the request of friends living in Langley.

"They used this as the lure to come," he said. "I think it's fantastic."

Racers wowed spectators with a variety of designs. Some of the sleeker cars brought up memories of 1920s rally racers, while others -- like one designed and built in part by island inventor and architect Matthew Swett -- was reminiscent of a baby jogger. That design won points with Swett's wife, Sarah Birger, when it stopped before hitting the straw bales just beyond the finish line.

"Yay, you stopped," was Birger's cheer after the vehicle lost its first race but avoided a crash.

Most effective in terms of speed were vehicles driven by Chris Housley and Marty Loken. Looking much like the Union's ironclad Civil War battleship, the USS Monitor, Housley's derby entry was a returning champion, having won the 1992 derby. Loken went with a low-slung, colorful three wheeler, but was at a disadvantage in the championship race when Housley and his three passengers used weight and momentum to reach the finish line first.

Other vehicles were built for panache. Displaying his love of spare parts, 1970s derby participant Leonard Good raced a quick but rusty little number that came complete with a wobbling wheel.

"I wouldn't exactly call it intentional," Good said of the design extra.

For race fans who came to see spills as well as thrills, the derby was not a disappointment. A wheeled steel bed frame ridden by four of the event's youngest participants crashed and slid at the finish line on its second run down the hill. Max Thorsen, one of the riders of the "Bronze Bedlam," said the spill was unfortunate because he and his team members thought they had a winning entry. They were disqualified after the crash.

A minor flaw in the vehicle's design, Thorsen said, led to the crash and several bumps, bruises and scrapes.

"If you turn on that thing and you're going, you're done," he said.

In all, about 20 drivers and vehicles participated in the derby. All received a trophy or award of some kind at the end of the day, whether for flat-out speed, design or sheer frivolity.

Organizers of the derby have not yet decided whether to bring it back for a sixth edition next year. The derby has had previous runnings in 1972, '73, '74 and '92.

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