Kirby Derby 2014: Catch a Falling Star

Kirby Derby Day dawned hot and uncertain. Partly cloudy with a 90% chance of wheels falling off of cars built by rookie drivers who don’t know what they’re doing.

ImageTeam Shooting Star had planned to wrap up our last-minute preparations late Friday afternoon, then take the car over to Kirby for some test runs Friday night. We figured we had some time to make adjustments on Saturday before the actual race.

Things did not go according to plan.

The weather was uncooperative, and our pinwheel situation was a lot harder than we thought it would be, and we still hadn’t managed to take our car off the sawhorses, load it with drivers, and see if she would roll.  It was coming up on serious dusk when we set the Shooting Star down on the sidewalk. We went and got Favorite Neighbor Tate, our designated push-off person. Favorite Neighbor Tripp answered the door, asking no questions other than, “Is it happening?” and Tate and Tripp came to spot us while we did our test run.

She went about a foot before the back wheels collapsed and we scraped to a stop.

Favorite Neighbors were kind enough not to panic, at least not in front of us, though Tripp looked a little pale. We went to our Plan B,  an emergency run for better wheels and some additional hardware. We made it out of Home Depot 7 minutes before closing, came back to my back porch and frantically repaired the wheel situation and added some bracing. We clamped everything together and waited overnight for the glue to dry.

I didn’t sleep all that well.

Julia drove back over around 10:30 for our next test run, with our solid new back wheels. We went and got Tate again and she gave us a push. This time, we made it like 6 feet, but the back right wheel was still wonky. Tate diagnosed that maybe we should go ahead and screw the screws in all the way, which we hadn’t done yet. That solved the problem entirely. On the next run, we made it about 8 feet, and our left front wheel spun out. We scraped to a stop for the third time. This issue was a bit out of my wheelhouse, as it were. We’d taken our steering mechanism with the front wheels to friends of Julia’s, who had already aligned the wheels, applied threadlocker, and professionally tightened them. They’d been declared sound and roadworthy. We were stumped.

We finally realized that the left wheel wasn’t tightening because its bolt was threaded the opposite of every sane and reasonably designed threaded bolt everywhere. It was lefty-tighty, not righty-tighty. We applied some more threadlocker and tightened the hell out of it, and that was all we could do. Travis from Kirby came with his truck to pick it up and haul it to the racecourse for us. He helped us do a sidewalk run first. We made it about 15 feet, although the brake fell apart. But she rolled! She rolled.

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Travis and Mike, both Kirby neighborhood folks, helped us with our official test run on Kirby. Mike gave us all kinds of advice about how to handle jockeying for position in the curve with another driver, and about not being afraid to use the brake, heavily, going into Deadman’s Curve. My friends call me Safety Patrol. I was okay with that advice. There is a good reason that Julia was our driver and  I was our brake. Mike stopped traffic at the bottom of the hill, and Travis pushed us from the top. We weren’t fast. In fact, we sort of lumbered to a stop a couple of times and Travis gave us an extra push or ten. But going into the curve, we really picked up speed, and we had to use the brake I’d just put back together, and then the last straightaway was fast. It was fun.

Towing the car back up the hill was where things fell apart. The threadlocker we’d used started to fail, maybe because the bolts holding our front wheels on were super hot from the friction. The wheels kept spinning sideways and grinding us to a halt, and then we lost a cotter pin and the steering mechanism disassembled itself. Travis lifted the front up and examined it, while Mike combed the hill for our cotter pin, long gone. But at least we knew what our problems were (no cotter pin and front wheels which needed to be adjusted every five feet) and how to fix them (new cotter pin and industrial strength threadlocker, the nuclear kind with the red cap.) We made our eleventy fifth trip to Ace Hardware since yesterday.

Julia and I took turns freaking out for the next couple of hours. Only one of us was allowed to panic at once, so one of us would be all, “I JUST DON’T WANT TO LOSE A WHEEL IN DEADMAN’S CURVE IN FRONT OF A THOUSAND PEOPLE” and the other one would be all, “We got this! We know how to fix our very minor issues, and we will make it down the hill one way or the other, and people are nice, and I NEED TO FREAK OUT NOW YOU TAKE OVER” and so forth.

When we got back to Kirby, we found this waiting for us in the car: an assortment of cotter pins, bolts, and washers, and have I mentioned I Love Kirby Street and everybody on it? Because THAT is teamwork. THAT is community. THAT is looking out for the people who clearly need just a little more coaching than average to build a car and get it down a hill with a Deadman’s Curve.

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My only regret for the day is that I surrendered my phone for safety and I really have no pictures of the excellent assemblage of Derby cars, nor do I have any pictures of the actual racing. This year’s theme was Superstition, so there were black cats, and leprechauns, and voodoo dolls, and a magic 8-ball, and a step-on-a-crack car, and this beautiful ladder car which ended up being a bit more sculptural than mobile. But it looked cool.

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We were seriously nervous by the time we had to line up for the parade, but every last person we talked to was hugely supportive, and of course it’s all in good fun. Not that there aren’t some real contenders every year, in terms of speed and beautiful design. Check out Andy’s Knock on Wood car. It’s a marimba, and it actually plays when the car rolls. And it rolls fast.

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We made friends in the parade, and were relieved to find the crowd much smaller than we remembered, and we looped around a couple of times and waved and saluted and were happy we had made it that far. Then it was time to….race. Things were kind of tense on Team Shooting Star during that 30 minutes or so before we lined up. The skies were threatening, and we’d neglected to register properly, and rumor filtered back to us that, instead of racing one at a time for timed trials, we were going to go straight to competitive heats to try and beat the storm. The ensuing conversation went something like this:

GAAAAAAAAAA.

We were the last heat, and there was nothing to do, but do it. We shotgunned a beer, and our pit crew/Houston/Ground Control/cheerleading squad tried to keep us calm, and then they loaded us in and Tate pushed us off.

The crowd, which was modest during the parade, had expanded into a thousand thousand tightly packed people for the race. That was more than I’d bargained for. But it was fun. Really fun. Way more fun than I thought it would be. As feared, we were super slow on the first stretch of hill, which just isn’t steep enough to get a car of our level of expertise going. We came close to grinding to a complete stop three or four times at the beginning. Thank you, kind sir who was the first to run from the crowd and give us a nudge. Thank you, kind woman, who was shouting nice and encouraging things at us and when Julia looked at you and said THANK YOU! PUSH!!!!- you pushed. Thank you, Gregg, for our final boost, which put us over the hurdle and got us lumbering down the hill, and one of my favorite moments of the day is you jogging out of the crowd with a smile and a beer in your hand to give us a shove.  Every last person in the crowd was cheering, even when we were stalled.

Once we got going, we were pretty respectable. The brake handle splintered off, which is fine, because we didn’t need it, except maybe a little when we were heading into the curve at a comfortable, but not terrifying, speed. The commentary, the way we heard it later, was something like, “Aaaand here’s the shooting star. They don’t have a lot of motion, but they have a lot of style.” And that was exactly the way we wanted it. We had glitter, and shiny ribbons, and spinning pinwheels, and a shooting star you could make wishes on. Also, somebody at the top of the hill called us the Hot Astronauts car. Thank you for that. I will treasure that.

We got a video clip from my friend Joy. I love it. We’re moving along at a pretty good clip, at this point. More importantly, the wheels stayed on. Even better than finishing our run without crashing or wheels falling off, I finished with an actual scrape on my arm. It is badass. It is also tiny, and certainly does not require the band-aid I put on it as a badge of honor. I have a soap box car derby scrape. I have never felt tougher.

I’ve said this before, but Kirby Derby is a lot more than just an afternoon of tomfoolery and shenanigans. It it totally those things too, which is why we all come, but there’s a lot more at work here: community, and hard work, and a neighborhood throwing open its doors to welcome anyone who’s willing to ante up and race, or to bring their families and cheer for strangers and friends old and new. It’s about competitors turning into compadres, and potential disasters turning into great stories, and about teamwork, and overcoming your fears, and also making stuff and hoping it will work.

Voodoo Doll car won this year, and it was really great. The last race came down to Voodoo Doll and Knock on Wood, and Knock on Wood was behind coming out of Deadman’s Curve, and then caught up on the last straightaway. They were in a dead heat, and then they collided, locked together, skidded into the guardrail- and crossed the finish line with Voodoo Doll a foot ahead. Well done all. Best race I’ve seen yet.

And so: I am sending out huge thanks to each and every person who got us down that hill today. Every hardware store in the county who helped us find, fix, or cut something. Everyone who helped us jigsaw, assemble, threadlock, and tighten. Every kind word from the crowd; every single person who showed up to cheer us on; my coworkers who alternately showed up dressed as Ground Control and encouraged us to throw caution to the wind and abandon brakes altogether; my neighbors who carried stuff and pushed us off and worried about us; my writer friend who told me with gravitas after our slow and spectacular run, “there is no objective measure for excellence…but you won in every measure which is not objective.” The people who ran out from the crowd to push us when we got dangerously close to stopping altogether; the people all around us on the parade route; the guys who helped us do our test run and found us parts and gave us steering advice.

A very particular shout-out goes to one extremely worthy car, which in my book wins for concept, execution, and total crowd involvement. Travis’s Day of the Dead car, a giant white skull which the crowd took turns painting with all sorts of patterns and designs and colors.  It was gorgeous, and she would have been fast, too, but there was a brake situation. So close, so so so close- but time ran out, and the brake wasn’t ready, and the Day of the Dead car made it around the parade route but not down the hill at race time. Travis, the one who cheerfully spent an hour and a half of his Derby day schlepping our car from downtown and helping us do practice runs and troubleshoot, could have built three or four brakes in the time he spent making sure we were all set to participate. Don’t think for a second I don’t know that, people. That is a pretty big sacrifice in the name of Derby. And so: hats off to the Day of the Dead car, and Travis, and every single other person who got our Shooting Star down the hill. We owe you big, and it takes a village sometimes, and what a nice village this is. Racing a car in Kirby Derby was on my Life List, which meant I had to do it, and it was enough fun that it just might get me through this next long stretch of exams.

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(photo credit Danny Rosin)

Thanks, Kirby, as always. See y’all out there next year.

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