Kirby Derby 2014: Wish I May, Wish I Might

Today is Kirby Derby.

Kirby Street: short stretch, steep hill, 90 degree turn, fun neighbors, annual soap box derby. Thousand-some odd spectators lining the streets and hanging from trees to take photos. You are now up to speed.

So, I’ve been threatening to race a car in Kirby Derby for the last three years. I wrote it on my Life List. But I am all talk, people. ALL TALK. I wasn’t really going to do it. I’m not that afraid of crashing. I’m just afraid of doing anything, anything at all, in front of a thousand people. And anyway, this year has been derailed by the Architecture Registration Exam, all seven parts. This year is low on fun. This year is high on expenses. This year has not even reached “middling” yet, in terms of adventure. This year is about Finishing What I Started When I Changed Careers, and Doing What Needs to Be Done, and Gritting My Teeth and White-Knuckling Through This Continued Professional Hazing. My reserves are low, physically, mentally, and financially.

Which is why we had to build a derby car.


I took another exam at the end of May, one which was equal parts tedium and mean-spirited trickery. It was seven different kinds of engineering, 90 hours of studying, 20% information I’d never seen before, and a sleepless night with a poor queasy dog beforehand. I was sure I’d failed, and I vowed not to look at my score report until after my next couple of exams on the books in September. I knew it would just derail me and ruin my study-free month of June. I earmarked June for peace and quiet, laziness, trashy summer novels, and beers on sidewalks. Then I threw all of that under the bus for the insanity of building a soap box car on short notice with no power tools or previous knowledge. Which my friend and I would then race on a treacherous hill in front of a thousand of our closest friends.

Julia and I went in together on a kit which included only the wheels and steering mechanism. We purchased this kit not so much from its geographical location in the wilds of Canada, as from straight out of 1975. It came in a box that was about 2’ wide and 2” deep. We looked at it on Julia’s porch. It was approximately the weight of a standard pizza delivery.


“Does that look like it could hold a derby car?” I asked her.

We agreed that it did not.

I attempted to assemble the steering mechanism at my kitchen table that night from the brightly colored vintage photos on the box, and the instructions which were written in French and English. I know enough French to understand that those two sets of instructions were in no way related. Julia and I began referring to the parts supplier as Helter Skelter. I’d stand the assembly up, and the kingpins would slide right out and the whole thing felt like a house of cards, and that was BEFORE we’d actually built anything.

We got a late start, and both our calendars were already packed with work travel and family weddings and meetings. It came down to two build days. TWO. I built a cardboard mock-up in my guest room, which Fletch kept trying to eat. I figured out how to lay the pieces out on a 4’ x 8’ sheet of plywood, and I had a one-hour window between work and leaving for a rehearsal dinner at the coast in which to purchase our supplies. The team at the lumber yard was nice, but I didn’t feel that they were entirely invested in our derby car. I left for the family wedding with a giant sheet of plywood cut just exactly enough to fit in my car with all of the seats down, and a little brown paper bag with jigsaw blades and wood screws. And some serious anxiety.

I returned from the family wedding at 1 a.m. on Saturday night so that I could make it to Build Day the following morning. Julia and I dragged all our supplies over to my friend Michael’s back yard, because he had tools and small children and was therefore up early on a Sunday morning. He didn’t bat an eye at our crazy. We did two or three hours of cutting, really Michael did while we watched and said encouraging things, and he was happy to use five different power tools, and we loaded our assorted pieces back into the car for assembly on my back porch.


“You have sawhorses, and a drill, and all of that stuff?” Michael asked us.

“We have nothing but a dream, Michael,” I told him.

He was a good sport about that. He sent us away with sawhorses and a good drill.

Julia and I spent the rest of the day frantically assembling. Mostly it went well. We totally underdesigned our structure (stop looking at me like that, I had faith in the integrity of the plywood, and also I have not taken the structures exam yet) and then we had to make some big adjustments and ended up with an overdesigned structure. There were two or three trips to hardware stores that day, not to mention about a dozen after that. Whatever. It came together. It’s pretty solid.


We finished build day 1 with… not that much to show for it. Our car looked sketchy and a little bit frail. We were hot, and hungry, and frazzled. I was prepared for the intermediate stages to be rough; I went to design school, and I know that what you do is, you take your worst-case scenario budget and build schedule, and you build in a contingency for delays and unforeseen expenses.

Then you multiply your worst-case scenario plus contingency by three. Which is about right.

I…I don’t remember all the details after that. There was a lot of carpenter’s glue and a whole bunch of metal fasteners, and continuous charging of the drill. I had a roll of marine plywood left over from the chair I built in graduate school, and it’s so pretty, and I had fun cutting that out and making a swoopy hood. Then on Build Day 2 we primed, and painted, and lettered, and glittered.

I love the Shooting Star.


This is Kerby Derby # 13, so obviously the theme had to be “Superstition.” We went through a bunch of good ones, broken mirrors and throwing salt over your shoulder and four leaf clovers and all the rest, before we landed on Wishing upon Stars, and such the like. Plus “Shooting Star” kind of implies speed, and also encouraged the heavy use of pinwheels and glitter.

While we were painting and priming, Julia asked me if there were any superstitions I totally followed. My answer was the same one I usually give when discussing something mystical: whether it works because it’s real, or works because you want it to work, don’t some of these things feel like they work? Actual studies, sciency ones, have shown that people who believe in good luck experience lucky things, and people who believe in bad luck experience unlucky things. Self fulfilling prophecy? I think so. And, as I believe I mentioned, I think if you want something badly enough to spend a precious shooting-star wish on it, or your annual birthday candle wish, or your lucky penny in a wishing fountain wish- well, those wishing opportunities don’t come along just every day of the week, and if you have your wish dialed in when you have the opportunity? I’d wager you know what you want, and you’re looking for ways to make it happen already.

Maybe you’re waiting for some divine intervention, or something to fall into place, or for the object of your wish to do something about it so you don’t have to. But luck, in addition to whatever else it may or may not be, is that moment when preparation meets opportunity. So, today, what the hell. We wished for it, we talked about it, we said it couldn’t be done, then we did it anyway. We’re racing in Kerby Derby.

I sewed some horseshoes on to the back pocket of my astronaut costume. Just to be safe. Oh, and for those keeping track, I caved and looked at my last exam score report within six hours. I passed.



Speeding into the back six months of the year, 2014 may still have some surprises and lucky charms and wishes-coming-true in store after all. See y’all up on Deadman’s Curve.

Wish us luck.

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