Derby bound | October 17, 2008 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Living - October 17, 2008

Derby bound

Danville team seeks Red Bull Soapbox Derby Crown

by Geoff Gillette

It's an image straight out of Norman Rockwell. A group of neighborhood kids throwing together a car out of scrap wood and metal. The car takes shape and the kids drag it to the top of the nearest hill. The driver grins widely, climbs in and the rest throw their weight into the back and push the rickety contraption down the incline and into the waiting jaws of fate.

In this case, the neighborhood is Danville/Blackhawk, the kids are all in their late 20s to early 30s, and the car is made out of fiberglass and aluminum and cost thousands of dollars to make. And the hill isn't some Midwestern bump in the road but one of those steep slopes in San Francisco that make you sweat just looking at them.

This isn't your father's soapbox derby.

In an era where nearly every sport has been taken to its extreme, leave it to energy drink manufacturer Red Bull to appeal to the child in all of us to create a soapbox derby challenge that combines a classic derby with the speed and thrills sought by adrenaline junkies the world over and the goofiness of today's Reality TV shows.

That's exactly what drew the members of Team Honor Roller of Danville to be one of 36 competitors in the race being held tomorrow in San Francisco, on Dolores Street in the Mission District.

"I was commuting into the city and heard the commercial," said Team Captain Bryan Montalvo. "I thought it would be pretty cool and decided I wanted to try it."

Montalvo mentioned the race and his thoughts on entering it to good friend James Martin and the team had its beginning. "Bryan told me about it and I was in," Martin said. He added, "It all came together in a few days over a couple of beers."

The pair recruited two more members to round out their team: Scott Blake and Andy "Big Ginger" Littig.

"Scott works at Alamo Bicycles so we knew he'd be able to help us with the wheels and brakes," Montalvo said. "As far as Andy, we were down at Meenars and Andy was working and we said we needed some muscle and Andy is the biggest guy we know."

Thus the crew was formed. Martin, a self-professed adrenaline junkie, would be the driver; Montalvo, a product designer, would act as vehicle design lead and Team Captain; Blake took on the role of mechanic; and Littig would be an additional mechanic/pit crew.

Montalvo said to join the race they had to fill out an application and provide a design sketch of their concept to race officials. Once approved, they would have around six weeks to build their prototype racer.

The Honor Roller is named for a soapbox derby car created by a character on an episode of the Simpson's TV show. Montalvo said that he was happy they got approval of the Simpson's design plan but that was actually their second entry into the race.

"Our first design idea was a big donkey. We'd push it down the street and then James would jump in the rear," Montalvo laughed, "They didn't approve that one, so they must have liked the Simpson's better."

The team has spent dozens of hours and more than $3,000 designing and building its car. Martin said they want the Honor Roller to not only look good but to run the course in record time. "A lot of the cars are papier mache and aluminum. They're going to fall apart. Ours is built for speed."

The process has been a difficult and expensive one for the crew but they were glad to get some community support.

"We've gotten some of it donated," Blake said. "Mike Wells at Alamo Bicycles donated the wheels and the brakes. Track Magic is providing the steering assembly."

Blake said the sponsorships and donations have really made the car a community project. "The best part of building the car is all the people we know. It's been effortless, getting help." He added, "It's been a lot of fun for us too. A lot of good late nights putting this together."

The body of the car will be fiberglass. The foursome took blue foam and cut it into the basic body style of the car. They spent most of a weekend applying a clay compound to the outside. The fiberglass will be applied next and once it is done the shell will be removed from the foam and the whole thing smoothed out and painted.

Montalvo said once all of the work is done, they will start working to get it all together and ready to run. Martin added, "Once all the pieces are here it will come together pretty fast."

Test runs on the actual race course on Dolores Street in San Francisco are not allowed, but the Honor Rollers plan to at least get it out on the street to make sure it rolls well and the steering and braking assemblies work properly.

Blake said with a laugh: "Let's just take it down from Mount Diablo. That would be a good test."

The race course is relatively short, only two blocks. It starts on a ramp at 21st and Dolores, and the Judges Platform is at 19th and Dolores. Hay bales are placed along the street so the course is not a straight shot downhill but two turns and a jump.

Martin joked that if he makes the jump just right he could actually bypass one of the turns. This led to a discussion of putting a skid plate under the nose of the vehicle so on impact it wouldn't be damaged.

With the steepness of the hill, the crew is expecting the Honor Roller to get up to between 20-30 mph. Montalvo assumes that the driver will be braking at times on the track. Martin, on the other hand, said he's happy to have the brake, but doesn't plan on using it. "Real men don't use brakes," he said.

As the car continues to come together, Montalvo said they have ideas for additions to make it function better but they have to be conscious of how much the vehicle weighs. "Our biggest challenge will be coming in at or under the weight restriction. The weight limit is 176 pounds, so we need to be aware of how much everything will weigh when we're putting it together."

On Oct. 17 the finished racer will be loaded onto a trailer and taken to "Pit Row," an area set aside for the racers on 20th Street between Dolores Street and Church Street. On Saturday, crews will be examined by judges prior to the start of the race to make sure the cars are within weight limits and can be part of the race. Then at 1 p.m. the competition begins.

"The race is only part of it," Montalvo said. "Before we run the car we have to do a 30-second skit. At the end of it James jumps in the car and the rest of us push him down the hill."

The Honor Rollers will be putting on a Simpsonesque performance with Montalvo as Homer, Blake as Moe the Bartender, Martin as Martin, and Littig as Red Bull man. The original concept called for Littig to be the Duff Beer man from the cartoon, but the rules say there can be no alcohol or alcohol-related activities in the skits.

Red Bull regional communications director Scott Houston said the vehicles, the race and the crew's showmanship all play a factor in determining a winner.

"It's split evenly between the three categories. There are 10 points that can be awarded for each category, and there are five judges for a total of 50 possible points per category," he explained.

In addition to working on their own car, crew members keep an eye on the competition. Sketches of all the competitors are posted on the Red Bull Site Many also post build videos and information on There you can see a soapbox crash reel and videos of past winners.

Martin said there were a couple of cars in the race that just seemed destined to fail. "There's one with a huge hamster wheel on top. It's made out of pvc pipe." Chuckling he added, "There's going to be some spectacular crashes."

On the other hand, the team has seen one car that looks to be their nemesis. "One car called the Testosta-rod actually has a suspension," Montalvo said.

Martin chimed in, "It looks fast. Other than that car, I'm not too concerned."

The Honor Roller team members said they are hoping to see solid support from the town out on the race course. "We've invited half of Danville," Blake said.

The winner of the derby will receive a Nascar Package that will get the winning team into the pits, let them meet Red Bull drivers and get to see a real Nascar race up close.

Blake shrugged off the potential prize. "We're in it to have fun, for the bragging rights."

James Martin disagreed, "We're in it to win. We're going to win."

A laughing Blake responded, "If we don't get first or second, James isn't coming out of San Francisco."