Highway to Hell
Already foisted upon America as part of MTV's The Real World, and currently featured in Levi's 501 commercials, the San Francisco Illegal Soapbox Society (SFISS) has survived the media, nasty neighbors, and nosy cops to remain, in its three years, largely unknown. Maybe that's because nobody knows exactly when the next race is. An ersatz mailing list attempts to inform interested parties, but typically people just show up at the Bernal Heights location every few weeks with their cars.
"Last time there was a whole lot of blood," admits one driver. "People are afraid to show up."
The SFISS track is a stretch of pavement curling around a big hill in the middle of San Francisco, blocked at both ends with guard rails. The view is incredible and, except for a few joggers, completely deserted. As cars are unloaded, and dogs chase tennis balls, discussions break out among the crowd about dry lubricant and tie rods. Fans and drivers cluster around someone holding a wheel.
"How are you gonna mount that on a five-sixteenths axle?" asks one.
The SFISS is a far cry from soapbox events of years past, where strict rules were often bent by meddling parents caught up in the competition. At Bernal Heights, the cars just have to be homemade.
One precarious cart is made out of an old lawn mower, another pieced together from wooden medical crutches, still another a beat-up snowboard with wheels and a seat. A makeshift shark wobbles on three wheels, with extra training wheels attached to the rear and fin atop the driver's helmet. Another car, lashed together from scrap lumber, broken office furniture, and wheels stolen "off a forklift at work," features a compartment that fits two 12-packs of Meister Brau on ice.
The steering mechanism on many cars is just string to a wheel. Some vehicles have a piece of plywood that lowers to scrape against the ground and slow down the speed, but it's primarily the old-fashioned drag-your-feet-until-she-stops braking system. Vince's plywood board-brake sports two old tennis shoe soles nailed to it.
"This is as soapbox as you can be!" exclaims the 31-year-old apartment building manager and driver of a sleek black two-man car.
"Tennis shoes last one race. It doesn't matter if they're Nike, Keds, Reebok. But I will say, Nikes work better than the cheapies. The cheaper the tennis shoes, the worse the brakes work. If I can find a bias ply car tire, slice it up with a razor blade, and stick it on there, that'd be just really nice."
Vince has won the past three or four races, but says, "It's all for fun, that's what it's all about." His friend follows him around with a video camera, documenting the legendary car and its driver. Vince is the mad surfer of the sport: wavy long hair, gravelly voice of a million cigarettes, buck knife attached to his belt, always moving fast, laughing easily. He jokes with other drivers that at the Golden Gate Bridge, while towing his car behind his Subaru, he was charged for three axles.
"It's not a high-tech thing," continues Vince, stopping to accept an offered weed pipe and lighter. "This car's lasted two seasons. It's gone through new front ends, new back ends. We crashed it on Folsom over here, and we swore we'd never take it on the track ever again, because we hit 55, 60 miles an hour, and the parachute blew out."
Not an actual parachute, but a bottom flap pieced to a camping tent. Such dumpster-diving sensibility might suggest a free-for-all punk ethic, but Vince is quick to correct the record. "There is a rule, and we're actually not following the rule right now. We're in violation. You have to have a beer holder on the car."
Beer plays a major role in the soapbox world. At the end-of-the-season party, cars are displayed like the Indy 500 museum, and much beer is consumed. Gallons of beer. Kegs of frosty, frothy suds. When the drivers aren't racing cars, they're drinking beer in bars like the Zeitgeist or the Armadillo.
"It usually goes until everybody's too drunk, or too hurt," laughs one young woman waiting at Satan's Slingshot, a precarious turn where poor negotiation will guarantee an airborne ride into someone's kitchen window. She remembers one outing where two cars collided and their wheels became stuck together. A girl was dragged 20 feet in a sun dress, and lost a bunch of skin. Drunken would-be paramedics dressed her wounds with diapers, using beer as antiseptic.
Nine cars glide silently down the slope, jockeying for position just like their engined big brothers. As they whip past Satan's Slingshot, Vince's two-man car zips around the outside and passes them all at 40 miles an hour. Several seconds later, a lone car that looks like a tiny children's potty on wheels rolls genially past, getting the most cheers from the crowd.
Homemade trophies are awarded at the season's end, for two classes of cars: hard wheels and air-filled tires. (Pneumatic tires are faster but bounce around a lot.)
"There was this one trophy that had, like, this weird rubber animal on it, and these little doodads, and then like something coming above it," says Dana, an unemployed pet shop clerk in his early 30s. "It was a trip. It was a trophy that I wouldn't mind taking home. That was something else."