Derby day is drawing near with breakneck velocity. The 10th annual Kingston Artists' Soapbox Derby day, that is. This quirky and curious race-where speed doesn't matter and where finishing last is akin to finishing first-is set to roll into zany action later this month.
The phrase "on a soapbox" means to pontificate, to speak one's views passionately, to spread the word, or just to show off. The Kingston derby, though named after the boxes used to construct competitors' cars, has taken that phrase to heart. After all, in Kingston exhibition matters much more than competition, and each entry gets its 15 minutes (or seconds) of fame as it lurches, careens, slides, bumps, flies, or inches down the steep Broadway slope in the city's Rondout waterfront district. The only rules are that entries must be gravity powered, with brakes and steering ability; safe to drivers and spectators; within certain size limits; and have no more than three co-pilots. And as this is the Artists' Soapbox Derby, contestants are encouraged to "think outside the box."
Some make political statements, some profess their love of certain films or books, some create beautiful and intricate engineering feats, some show off their cleverness, and some just pull things together at the last minute. Entirely personal, eagerly anticipated, and always entertaining, the Artists' Soapbox Derby "is like Christmas in August," according to long-time volunteer Lu Ann Bielawa.
A lively example of Kingston's continued renaissance, the derby has grown exponentially in popularity and participation. This is due in no small part to organizer Nancy Donskoj, a Kingston artist who owns and runs the Donskoj & Company art gallery on Broadway. Her husband envisioned the event over a decade ago as the combination of a traditional soapbox race and a kinetic sculpture competition. Before the derby's maiden descent, Donskoj was concerned that no one would enter the competition or even come to see it. She needn't have worried: nine entries sped down the hill to the delight of nearly 200 people that first year.
This year the derby is expected to draw over 5,000 spectators and will award over $2,000 in cash prizes. The competition is so keen that pre-race photos and interviews tend to be granted only with promises of confidentiality, lest there be leaks regarding works in progress.
It became clear during the event's early years that encouraging participants to go fast might not be the best plan, especially as crowds grew and made potential accidents that much more of a worry. "We stopped awarding prizes for speed after the second year," Donskoj says. This decision may actually have transformed what was a silly and fun show of bravado among a handful of neighborhood residents into the kind of challenge that now inspires months of effort to imagine, design, create, and construct pieces of art. And what a great transformation it has been. As Donskoj says, "Art is fun. It's not just something you put on the walls. This makes it accessible to people."
The derby doesn't only inspire mechanical or artistic creativity. From public relations to public safety and from creative guidance to "gravity control," a vast crew of volunteers play important roles. Lu Ann Bielawa, who began as a curious newcomer and then acted as the motivating mother of a regular contestant, is now the derby's chief promoter. "It's all worth it on the day when you get to see the kids' smiling faces out in the street."
Another key supporter lives on in fond memory. Kingston's former mayor, the late T.R. Gallo, practically pestered Nancy and George Donskoj into putting on what had been just a flight of fancy. "We ran into Mayor Gallo back then and mentioned the idea of the derby to him, and then after that it seemed like every time we saw him he said, 'you gonna do that derby thing?'" The mayor backed up his good-natured teasing with tangible support. "He was willing to close the street for it," Donskoj remembers, "and so we decided to go ahead with it."
Gallo's infectious enthusiasm even extended beyond city limits. Five years ago he set out a challenge among local leaders to prove themselves outside their political circles and compete against each other. For a few years the Mayor's Cup, as it became known, was a two-way battle between Tivoli and Kingston. Now, however, mayors from around the area come to compete.
"It's important for people who may only get to talk business with one another to have a nice day together where they let loose in a casual way," frequent participant Tivoli Mayor Marcus Molinaro says. "Our families get to meet one another and we all have fun." Despite the mayor's insistence that the spirit of fun prevails, he will not comment on any plans for this year's entry. "It's top secret," he says, sounding very competitive indeed.