Tomorrow, thousands of fans exhibiting various levels of sartorial taste and blood-alcohol toxicity will descend (ascend?) upon the deceptively gentle slopes of Mount Tabor, an extinct volcano in the heart of Portland, for the Portland Adult Soapbox Derby. This annual event attracts an unusually bold and inventive breed of amateur athlete with a refreshingly simple set of rules. Competitors must build cars for no more than $300. All cars must have breaks. And that’s it. Some teams race for pure speed and attempt to capture the coveted overall championship; others pursue more intangible honors for Best Art Car and Crowd Favorite. As my new Portland Sportsman interview with the architect/designer who runs one of the fastest cars on the volcano shows, the Derby offers no shortage of competitive zeal or old-fashioned derring-do.
The Derby also embodies my beloved Two Futures of Sports Theory, a theory at the core of my forthcoming book, The Renegade Sportsman (Riverhead, next spring/summer). Here’s the theory: henceforth, the sports world—which has grown into such a globe-straddling juggernaut that it helps define our culture, both in the US and globally—will evolve on two parallel tracks. One of these Linnaean branches consists of the hyped-up, cash-spinning, televisually inflated Big Time. We know all about that side of things; we basically have no choice. However, I also think an alternative evolutionary line is coming into existence, an altogether stranger and more interesting genus of self-created, self-promoted events that thrives outside the mainstream sports ecosystem.
The Derby—an event that began with a few dozen crackpots steering themselves down a hill and then turned into one of the signal urban cultural events of Portland’s summer—is a prime example of what I’m talking about. Imagine, if you will, sports without money, without professionals, without television. Imagine, if you will, a sports world composed of amateur maniacs powered only by their own insanity and love of speed. Now add fast-moving, very fragile cars and a mob of fans 10,000 strong.
I think you will agree that it’s a beautiful thing.