Soup Box Derby: He wants to win even if it kills him

Peter Lawlor sits atop his Soup Box racer that will take him down First Street, and possibly beyond. - Brian Kelly / The Record
Peter Lawlor sits atop his Soup Box racer that will take him down First Street, and possibly beyond.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

CLINTON — After a spectacular crash with his pirate ship racer during last year’s Soup Box Derby in Langley, Peter Lawlor is coming to today’s race prepared for all eventualities.

Even the worst of all eventualities. This year, his racer is a coffin on wheels.

“After the crash last year, I thought I’d retire the bike. My daughter said, ‘Go low to the ground,’” he said. “It seemed to lead on from last year’s experience, should I have another experience, just nail the lid on and Bob’s your uncle.”

At one of last year’s heats during the annual race down First Street, his challenger nipped Lawlor’s pirate ship and Lawlor went flying over his handlebars. The audience gasped and held its collective breath until Lawlor wiggled, brushed himself off and finished the race on foot. The crowd cheered.

After the crash, Lawlor — known to many as Whidbey Island’s poet laureate — decided he needed a more sophisticated speed machine.

“I’ve been working on it for a couple of weeks.”

His casket racer has a golf cart motor. Lawlor stressed that the motor is not for cheating, because no motorized help is allowed in the race. But at his age, he said, pushing the racer up the hill for another round is tough.

“The power is only for getting me uphill,” he said.

The driver’s cab is made of some cedar boards. He painted them white and named the racer “Le Coffin.”

The casket, with regal-red upholstery done with the help of daughter Gretchen Lawlor, is tailor-made for the four-year Soup Box Derby veteran.

“It’s 5 foot, 10½ inches — made to my specifications. I used to be 5-foot-11, but I shrunk,” he said, as he took a seat in the vehicle to demonstrate the brake system — a 2-by-4 held in place by a small bolt that drops down to the pavement when activated.

“It’s fast. I’m going to have my brake on all the time,” Lawlor said.

Pleased with the fruits of his labor, he said his contraption may make another journey someday, but not down one of Langley’s steepest hills. At 86, or “four scores or more” as he puts it, Lawlor is planning ahead.

“I’m an ex-merchant seaman. Rather than being buried at sea, I’ve decided to keep Le Coffin for my eventual departure,” he said. “I’ll keep it as my coffin. I told my daughter about it and she said, ‘Right on!’”

So what are his chances of winning the race? In recent years, the wine-barrel racer with Greg and Liz Osenbach of the Whidbey Winery was nearly unbeatable.

“I test drove it up the hill from here on Tiffany Road. It’s fast,” he said. “The first time I tried it, I crashed it into the blackberries and the neighbor had to pull me out.”

But winning isn’t important, Lawlor added.

“There is a certain elegance in coming in last.”

Especially, when traveling in style like he does, he added.

The event will start today at 9 a.m. when racers meet at U.S. Bank in Langley for the inspection of their racers. The derby will include a parade to showcase the vehicles and their pit crews.

The Langley Community Club has been putting on the race in recent years, but the race gets its name from one of its early sponsors, the former Langley restaurant the Soup Co-op which put on the first race in 1972.

The 2008 race will be held on the original race course; the hill on Langley’s First Street. The first heat is at 10 a.m.

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