Gary Dean Davis, Speed! Nebraska Records' chief (right), and Jon Taylor, of the band Domestica, roll neck and neck down the soapbox derby track at 72nd and Washington streets in Omaha. Photo courtesy of Speed! Nebraska.
by Michael Todd
Remember when the biggest hill in town didn't kill your knees? When you willingly traveled to it by bike, skateboard or scooter for countless blocks. When bikes didn't have more than six gears and all you had to do to brake was reverse your pedaling, but once you were going downhill, flying faster than the speed of sound, braking was the last thing you wanted to do.
Hills were huge back then. Now we've reduced them to just a bit more foot on the gas.
It's sad, really. The world just tends to get smaller as we get older. But ask Jon Taylor of the band Domestica about a certain hill in Omaha, and he doesn't sound like one of the old boys, all grown up and crotchety. He sounds like a kid again.
"The hill is steep enough that it’s … it’s scary," he says. "I’ve crashed on that hill, and some of my flesh is still there."
Taylor is talking about the hill at 72nd and Washington, the hill upon which, I kid you not, official soapbox derby races are held. He's talking about the hill that won him the first-annual, not-so-official Speed! Nebraska Soapbox Riot trophy in 2009. This Saturday, Taylor takes to the track for the third time, trying to win back that trophy after it was wrested from his grasp last year by Speed! Nebraska Records' chief Gary Dean Davis.
If Taylor's death sled (in the photo to the right) looks like an emergency room visit waiting to happen, it's because it is. Davis says a Taylor in perfect balance could fly down the track. But if he moved just a little, Taylor's soapbox car would slip out from underneath him and that full-body leather suit would come in handy.
Add to the instability a good deal of confusion about the difference between soapbox cars and go-carts (the latter being popularized for Davis by Bill Cosby's Wonderfulness record), and the kind of friend Cosby talks about — the kind whose go-cart turns into a fire engine — might have been useful that first year.
"One or two races in, we discovered that the concept of steering a go-cart doesn’t carry over to soapbox cars," Davis says. "Our lack of understanding caused several wrecks. We flipped a couple and had some blood and mayhem. So we learned from that, and the next year it was a much safer race with no blood spilled."
Still, a safer race doesn't mean Taylor and Davis are going any slower. They've got their honor to fight for.
"I’ve basically been thinking about revenge for 364 days," Taylor says, thinking about reclaiming the trophy he won in 2009 (in the photo to the right). "It’s just consuming, so I didn’t have time to rebuild the car. I’m gonna run the same car, but I did do some preparation that I didn’t do last year that I’m not at liberty to divulge. I will say I’m having some new stickers designed for my car that will probably make it go a little faster, but as far as my other techniques to increase my car’s speed, I can’t really go into it."
The only place Taylor and Davis want to be side by side on is the compilation Speed! Nebraska is releasing to commemorate the event. Each song on the 10-inch has something to do with racing, including Domestica's "Go Mama, Go," about a mom and a hemi-powered minivan. Domestica, Ideal Cleaners, Filter Kings, Wagon Blasters, The Third Men, The Really Rottens and Students of Crime each contributed a song. All those bands minus Ideal Cleaners and The Really Rottens will also play O'Leavers at 9:30 p.m. to close out Saturday's festivities.
All in all, it's a day spent in order to feel like hundreds, even thousands of days never happened, like the hills are bigger than you remember them to be. It's a day for friendly competition with your buddies, all you could ever ask for on a hot morning and early afternoon in July.
And as Davis says, having grown up on a gravel road out in the country, "I want to provide that kind of fun for my kids to enjoy, just as my dad did for me."
Michael Todd is a summer intern for Hear Nebraska. He is proud to have flown down Cheyenne Avenue in Alliance, past 16th straight down the hill, over the curb and down the sidewalk leading to Laing Lake: all without braking. Beat that, local indie musicians. Reach Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.