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DERBY DAREDEVILS RACERS USE HOMEMADE SOAPBOX CARS TO EXPERIENCE THRILLS, CHILLS AND SPILLS.

Byline: RACHEL URANGA

Staff Writer

Long before helmets were a must -- in the days when they played outside till darkness fell -- kids took to the newly paved hills, pumping slowly up on single-speed bicycles, then racing down, wind in their hair, handlebars shaking a bit, cars whizzing by.

That's what a grown-up Valley kid who goes by the name Tick One sees -- and feels -- when he's racing a grown-up version of a Soap Box Derby car.

Tick One, an artist, and Paul de Valera, the 35-year-old owner of a Reseda bike shop, have aged a few decades but still live for the thrill.

The two in-your-face Valley natives founded San Fernando Valley Illegal Soap Box Federation Racing, which orchestrates monthly early-morning races where homemade soapboxes top 60 mph as they zoom down some of the Valley's steepest hills.

"See, when you go down a freeway at 60 miles an hour, you have suspension, your insulation and you don't have the sensation of going fast," de Valera said.

"When you are in a soapbox, it's an open cockpit and you have goggles and a helmet and some leathers and you are inches from the ground. The sensation is much greater."

On a recent Sunday morning -- amid dog walkers dressed in jogging suits and parents pulling their kids in a wagon -- Jeremy Gruen, a 34-year-old window tinter, lined up his purple soapbox with painted flames next to two dozen other cars, equally eye-grabbing.

"It's in the shape of a coffin, so if I crash and die they can pick up the car and bury me in this," joked Gruen, a cigarette dangling from his lips.

The 5-foot-long makeshift vehicle -- replete with a chain-like steering wheel and fur seats -- is ready for the "action, mayhem, destruction, bodily harm" that the race promises.

At first moving slowly, the men jockeyed for a spot, joking with each other about reaching the finish line first. Then gravity kicked in and they plummeted down the curvy West Valley hill for three-quarters of a mile.

The race itself lasts no longer than a few minutes. But it has a distinct feel -- like the subcultures associated with early skaters, surfers or Harley riders.

And the crowd of 30-or-so looks like a morph between rockabilly hipsters, Harley riders, skateboarders and low-rider aficionados -- with some golf-shirt-wearing suburban dwellers sprinkled in.

There's the business consultant who is tired of polished sporting events and a mother who introduced her teenage son to the Soap Box Derby.

The unspoken code is that participants have to be tough and must have a passion for creating their own mini-cart.

"This is not about being seen," de Valera said. "We start early ... to get those fair-weather hipsters to not show up.

"They are not going to have what it takes to race. We are not going down some wimpy hill for a quarter-mile. It's not something where we control the road. We take our chances that it's going to be OK."

Cars slap up against each other, roll over, spin out. The prize? A spot in the winner's circle, bragging rights and a homemade trophy -- an 18- inch-high amorphous piece of metal that gets passed along to the next winner who adds his own personal design, from welded handcuffs to pinstripes.

Participating also gets you a sticker that depicts a racer who's spun out. In the small world of the racers, the stickers are a point of pride, a show of commitment to the daredevil hobby.

The soapbox racers are not the types who will sue or cry when they get a serious scrape. They shake it off and talk about the craziness of the flip or crash.

Though the races are meant for the fast and loose, they are anything but ill-planned.

There's a seven-page rule book that outlines what to wear -- a helmet -- when races should begin -- 7:30 a.m. -- and how soapboxes should be built -- with a four-wheel steering system and brakes.

Elliot Gray, a freelance videographer, has been documenting the racers over the past year.

"Soapbox racing has been around since the 1930s. It's nothing new, it's not reinventing the wheel," Gray explains. "But when you look at the demographic that comes to our race, it's not geared for kids, like other leagues geared to Boy Scouts.

"This is geared toward guys in their 30s and 40s who just want to have fun."

In their day jobs, many work with cars or build movie sets. They use their welding skills to put together the soapbox.

On online discussion boards posted by the group, the men talk trash to each other and try to one-up the next.

"There's this kind of, 'Screw you, I am going to win,'" Gray said. "If you didn't have that sort of attitude and bravado, you wouldn't be attracted to it."

The organizers don't pull city permits for the race -- instead they carry walkie-talkies to communicate when the road is clear.

To avoid getting cited by police, they move from location to location. So far, the racers have gotten only a warning.

The Los Angeles Police Department says the racing is not technically illegal because the carts aren't motorized. The problems lie in obstructing traffic and violating vehicle codes.

"The speed these conveyances travel can be excessive and difficult to maneuver in an emergency situation. It constitutes a public hazard on the highway," said Sgt. Michael Zaposki of Valley Traffic Division.

"They are hard for other drivers to see because of the small size. Innocent bystanders can get hurt, in addition to the racers themselves. I would not recommend anyone doing this in an uncontrolled environment on an open city street."

At the recent Sunday race, no cops showed up. There were no injuries. No flips or turnovers -- just a lot of back-slapping after racers hit the brakes, skidding and spinning so as not to go too far past the finish line, where cars sped through a busy intersection.

"There is this danger factor that you could possibly get killed, just like a parachute jumper," Gruen said. "My heart starts racing when you start to go real fast. I can slow the car down if I wanted -- but then I would lose."

rachel.uranga(at)dailynews.com

(818) 713-3741

CAPTION(S):

6 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 3 -- color) The San Fernando Valley Illegal Soap Box Federation held their monthly race down Victory Boulevard in West Hills Sunday.

(4) The San Fernando Valley Illegal Soap Box Federation trophy is awarded to the winner of the first race each month and is added onto by that winner. It is then passed on to the next month's winner.

(5) A racer is towed back up the hill for the next race. Two Valley natives founded the San Fernando Valley Illegal Soap Box Federation, which orchestrates monthly, early-morning races.

(6) The San Fernando Valley Illegal Soap Box Federation held its monthly race down Victory Boulevard, west of Valley Circle Boulevard on Sunday. Top left, racers put air in their tires. Top right, a racer comes around a corner.

David Sprague/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 30, 2007
Words:1179
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