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Climbing up a steep, dusty ridge to the uppermost point of Bernal Hill can be strange on the second Sunday in May. The city sprawls out below, with that Financial District pyramid twinkling in the afternoon sun; the bay is silvery-blue, a pleasing contrast with the reddish, stony ground underfoot; to the south, cookie-cutter houses shimmer in the gray haze. The sound of happy barking dogs eventually floats over from the other side of the crest. Their owners holler greetings back and forth and whistle at their runaway mutts.
Then, quite suddenly, a blaring siren cuts through the springtime air like a bomb warning. Shouts explode over the clatter of rattling metal and grinding wheels. It is the unmistakable sound of the San Francisco Illegal Soap Box Derby.
A short scramble over the ridge reveals a peculiar scene, two parts Leave It to Beaver and four parts Road Warrior. A crowd of over 200 punks, bike messengers, gearheads, musicians, artists, and overgrown kids sits scattered along the makeshift track -- a blocked-off section of Bernal Heights Boulevard -- drinking beer, soaking up sun, snapping pictures, and proffering unethical mechanical advice. The contenders, as varied as their homemade machines, gather at the top of the track to make last-minute adjustments and check out the colorful array of "virgin" cars.
"This car is 23 years old," says a tan-faced man named Binky indicating a small black contraption with a steering wheel. "I built it when I was 12. My grandma had it under her steps all this time." The members of Binky's five-man team have no fear in racing it alongside their two new cars -- the bargelike Uberliner, and the Uberwagon, which looks like an oversize shoehorn. Among other newcomers is a lawn chair on wheels raced by Team Lounge, the Malibu Barbie Racer (exactly what you think), and the sturdy-looking Pallet Car, a picture of simplistic beauty comprised of a ... pallet.
"The Mouse Car is as slow as molasses, but it's bound to be popular," says a veteran racer wearing a motorcycle helmet with Martian antennae. The fuzzy, gray mouse approaches, complete with goggly, golf-ball eyes and a long, spindly tail. This year's design features a baby's safety seat, which will be occupied by 15-month-old Blue. The baby wears only red (down to his little helmet).
The Mouse Car races against other slow-moving soap box cars with non-pneumatic (solid) wheels, and although it does not place in the top five (out of six), Blue is quite pleased with the race. Parents and other children from the neighborhood sit on the ridge above the track applauding wildly.
"There was a benefit at the Bernal Playground last weekend," says one parent, accompanied by his 8-year-old son, "with a short movie about crime-fighting kids who drive soap box cars." The project, titled Bernaltown, was the brainchild of Gregory Gavin, who teaches 10- to 13-year-old would-be carpenters how to use tools.
Nevertheless, soap box racing on Bernal Hill is a prevalently adult sport, one which has scraped tattoos off many a bare back, and the media treats it that way. As the faster-moving, pneumatic-wheeled cars line up for their first heat, photographers from Details, POV, the Chron/Ex, and, um, SF Weekly pick their way among humping dogs and beer-drinking "pit crews."
"I've never seen so much media crawling around," says Kal Spelletich, founder of the Seemen, a local multimedia art terrorist group. Today, fellow Seeman Jason Broemmel launches a car that boasts an earsplitting horn, flame-flowing exhaust pipes, and a water hose that periodically douses the sunbaked crowd. In the first heat, the Seemen Car is driven by Jason's mother, Pat Broemmel, who enjoys herself but prefers the old autocross days. "If I'm going to do this again, I'd want my own car," she says smiling at her son.
Timble (formerly of High Speed Press) speeds by in a fast, mean, blue machine sponsored by Amphetamine Reptile and Black Star Beer. Marty Crosley, the seasoned professional who started the races but is absolutely "not in charge," shows off by driving his dragon-green car backward down the slope. "Just look at him," exclaims a respectful opponent as Crosley takes the first turn with ease. "He waits for the last turn to spin around, then he just whizzes by. If he drove facing forward all the way, no one else would have a chance." Speed is cool, but ingenuity gets free beer, as the driver of a fully upholstered black lowrider with a built-in stereo system can attest ... until a live samba band, practicing for Carnaval, takes over on the music front.
By the 10th heat, most of the cars have been casually eliminated ("I'm tired of dragging the car back up the hill. Got a beer?" "I think I'll wait until the Loser Race. Got a beer?") and the drivers begin turning their vehicles over to friends and spectators ("Wanna try? Got a beer?"). A group of clean-cut skater types from the American Bible Society move through the crowd, nonchalantly passing out excerpts from Psalms and Corinthians.
"It's almost over," says Timble with one foot propped on his car. As to who won the opening day trophy -- a glittery bowling pin -- no one seems to know. Timble squints into the afternoon sun, looking like a well-adjusted, modern-day James Dean, and laughs. "No one really cares about that."
By Silke Tudor
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