photo from Speed! Nebraska's website
by Steven Ashford
Take the unforgiving heat as a friendly reminder to seek swimming pools, hot dog eating contests, dogs on skateboards and, of course, speed.
Gary Dean Davis, the founder of Speed! Nebraska Records, pursues his speed dream by hosting the annual Speed! and O’Leaver’s Soapbox Riot every summer, which takes place this Saturday starting at noon. The downhill soapbox car race takes off at Seymour Smith Park, 72nd and Washington, and is followed by a race-inspired concert at 9 p.m. at O’Leaver’s. This year marks the fourth installment, which makes it the 2012 Soapbox Riot 400.
Davis reflects back to the days before the Soapbox Riot when the wheels were much smaller and the speed was highly contained.
"You know, my wife keeps saying, ‘I need you to help me keep raising our kids — you can’t die on that hill!" — Speed! Nebraska's Gary Dean Davis
"Jon Taylor (Domestica) and I had talked about doing soapbox races for a lot of years," Davis says. "We started out having Hot Wheels races at clubs and having bands play in between the races. Then we had the Radio Flyer Death Match where one person would be driving the wagon and another person was pushing them along a track."
Naturally, Davis and Taylor thought the next step came in the form of soapboxes. The inaugural year of the Soapbox Riot was in 2009 and could be seen as a trial by fire, so to speak.
"The first year we had some serious bumps and bruises, but we quickly figured out that this was going to be something that we wanted to continue," Davis says.
Throughout the years, Davis has come to understand the dynamics of how a soapbox car works, from wrecking his home-built car days before the initial race to now working with an official soapbox car.
"During my test run, I flipped my car completely overhead and basically removed the skin from my wrist to my elbow," Davis says. "You know, my wife keeps saying, 'I need you to help me keep raising our kids — you can’t die on that hill!'"
At the derby, racers will bring in an assortment of craftily created cars ranging from cars they made from scratch to redesigned, old go-carts. The rules are pretty loose and remain all in good fun.
"We haven’t had anybody show up in an old Pinto, or anything like that," Davis says, remarking on the spirit of the event.
Secrecy behind the workings of a car remains a top priority to some racers such as two-time winner Jon Taylor.
"He won’t even tell me what color it is," Davis says. "I got him a sticker for the years he won in 2009 and 2011 to put on his car and I asked him what color he wanted to match, and he just said, ‘Oh, I don’t want to talk about it!'"
Each year, Davis feels like the event is gaining more recognition with more people in attendance and more racers competing in the event.
"Last year, it was cool to see people come from out of town see the derby," Davis says. "There is also a guy from Kansas City that has contacted me that says he wants to compete in the races this year, so we’ll see if he shows up."
Every other year, Davis gets Speed! Nebraska recording artists to put together a compilation 10-inch record to commemorate the event. Therefore, it is inevitable that the songs have loose ties with the theme of racing.
"It’s a very band-driven label and the bands are given a lot of freedom," Davis says. "Given the timing on things, last year’s record went out to the press before I was able to listen to all of the songs, so that goes to show you how much trust I have in the bands."
Although there won’t be a record to commemorate the 400 this year, Davis says to be on the lookout for next year.
"Budget-wise, it’s very tricky to put one out each year," Davis says. "But I can tell you that we’re already gearing up for the big 500 next year."
Steven is a Hear Nebraska contributor. He’s had too many downhill wrecks as a kid. He also fell out of a tree house once, so speed and heights are neither of his things. Reach him at email@example.com.