After a four-year hiatus, one of South Whidbey’s quirkiest and most anticipated events is back on the road this year.
Come Sunday, Sept. 17, a plethora of homemade cars will race down First Street hill in Langley as part of the Soup Box Derby to the cheers of gathered spectators on the sidewalks.
The all-ages event is a long-running tradition of the Village by the Sea that began in 1972. Owners of the Soup Coop restaurant, which was then located on the corner of First Street and Anthes Avenue, started the first race.
According to an article in The South Whidbey Record, the event known for its zany gravity-powered race cars was revived in 2002 by the Langley Community Club. It became a fixture of the city, and continued until 2019, the last year it happened.
“It’s been resuscitated several times throughout the years since it started in 1972,” said John Lawson, a member of the Langley Community Club. “It’s not unusual to take that break at all, and we’re happy to bring it back to the community.”
Richard Bacigalupi, president of the club, explained that the impetus for bringing the Soup Box Derby back in the early 2000s was to raise money to be invested in community projects, such as a playground and park benches throughout the city.
This year, the club is partnering with the Langley Main Street Association to present the event. Racer check-in is at 8 a.m., safety inspections occur at 9 a.m. and the races begin at 10 a.m.
The Soup Box Derby is famous for its impromptu nature. Racers show up the day of the event to register, and it’s often a mystery how many will participate.
“We always wondered if anybody was gonna race, or if anyone was gonna show up to race,” Bacigalupi said. “It was always this big question mark for us. Magically, the morning of the derby, we’d always get everything from 15 to 20 racers show up, ready to go.”
Cars must be propelled by gravity alone, which means no pedals or motors. Drivers must be able to steer and brake. Hard-shell helmets and closed-toed shoes are a requirement. A signed waiver form for every racer or rider is also required.
Straw bales lining the side of the street provide a cushy buffer, should a car go astray. But in the years that he’s been involved with organizing the race, Bacigalupi said, he’s never seen anyone get seriously hurt from wiping out.
Though it is a derby, speed is not the name of the game. There are no winners or losers.
“We don’t do any timing, we try to match people up by their abilities to race,” Lawson said. “Sometimes we have little kids, sometimes we have people that are new.”
At the end, everyone gets to pick a homemade trophy to take home.
“There’s a group of people who just glue together crazy, wacky things that become trophies,” Bacigalupi said.
Straw bales will be for sale for $10 each at the conclusion of the race. Check or cash is acceptable.
Memorable race cars from over the years include Gary Piper’s outhouse, Carl Magnusson’s bright orange carrot and Whidbey Island Winery’s wine barrels, among many others.
This year’s Soup Box Derby is in memory of Peter Lawlor, who died in 2021. Lawlor continued racing well into his 90s, and always had a poem ready to read.
“He crashed one year, but walked away unscathed,” Bacigalupi recalled.
The winning not-so-secret is that bicycle wheels are best.
Some racers have begun making modifications to their cars to get them ready for this year’s event, such as former Langley Mayor Tim Callison.
Callison plans to race his Dr. Seuss-themed car, which is outfitted with four seats, a fishbowl, plenty of book quotes and whimsical trees. During a previous year’s race, Callison dressed as the Cat in the Hat and wife Robin Black dressed as Sam I Am. Michaleen McGarry and her husband, Brian Dunnington, dressed as Thing One and Thing Two.
“There’s always interesting new cars,” Callison said.
The Soup Box Derby will be canceled if it rains, because it can create dangerous racing conditions.