Portland’s Adult Soapbox Derby

A Soapbox Derby car shaped like a Cheeto. Drivers try to make their cars as original as possible. Photo by Elliot Byrne.

Few community events in Portland can match the scale and seeming insanity of the Adult Soapbox Derby. A continuation of the youth derby from the late 50s and early 60s, the current event was born in 1997. The race was created by Paul Zenk, a naturalized Portlander who had previously participated in a similar event in San Francisco three years prior. Zenk missed the subtle combination of carnage and alcohol, and decided that Mt. Tabor would be the perfect place to recreate the race. The initial run had a mere six participants who brought with them a wild array of vehicles and beer. The race could have been a one time event, but race day enthusiasm from both the crowd and the drivers was enough to cement the Derby in southeast Portland tradition.

Twenty-one years later, the derby hasn’t changed much. Racers still build wacky and outlandish cars and the crowds still get whipped into a beer fueled frenzy. One notable difference is in the scale. While the original race had six cars, the current one draws upwards of forty-two, and the number of spectators has been estimated to be in the ballpark of 10,000. The rules have also been standardized in the years since the race’s conception. Cars must be powered solely by gravity and can have a maximum of three riders. Beyond those restrictions, drivers are free to be as creative as they like.

For those new to the derby, the annual race is traditionally held on the third Saturday in August. It’s free to watch, and food vendors are stationed at various points along the course. The race is on the west side of Mt. Tabor, with the best entrance being SE 60th and Salmon. Being a driver is restricted to those twenty-one and over, but high schoolers are welcome to spend the day watching everything from giant dogs to submarines careen down Tabor’s slopes.

Franklin’s very own Aubrey Maclaren has been involved with the soapbox derby. She raced in what she described as a “kid’s version of the soapbox derby.” The race was organized by the All American Soapbox Derby and took place in Salem. Aubrey’s family got involved with Portland’s Derby when the director reached out to them about creating a youth version of the event. “[The event] happened for a few years and me and my family helped run and coordinate that.” The race took place on Hawthorne and ran from the Seminary to 49th. Racers build their own cars, similar to the adult racers, but the cars are focused more on speed than on being outlandish.

The race has come a long way since its inception, but at its heart it’s still the wild and crazy event that it was all those years ago. If you’re a Portlander and haven’t been to the Soapbox Derby, do yourself a favor and participate in this Portland tradition.

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