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CANCELLED! Soapbox derby is scrubbed!

On a roll! Soapbox derby flies by Witnesses
Irene Tejaratchi Hess

The hotly anticipated return of the soapbox derby down Columbia Heights later this month has been cancelled, the organizer told The Brooklyn Paper late Monday night.

Just two weeks ago, Paping Soapbox Derby founder John Mejias said he had found a novel way around last year’s game-ending objections by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, whose headquarters straddles Columbia Heights. This time around, Mejias said, his event would go on as it had for four previous summers because a friend had secured a city permit.

With the permit, Mejias said he had hoped of closing Columbia Heights between Middagh and Doughty streets — a mountainous speedway for soapbox derby racers — for the Aug. 23 event. A friend was planning to film the event for a documentary on “kinetic sculpture.”

But it was never clear that Mejias actually had any city permit. After The Brooklyn Paper ran its story about Mejias’s claim to having such city permission, reps from both the mayor’s film office and the 84th Precinct said that neither had given Mejias permission to close off the street for his race.

To further complicate problems, the Watchtower Society — commonly known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses — again expressed concerns about liability.

When cops called Mejias to talk about the planned race, Mejias decided to cancel the event.

“It was more trouble than it was worth,” Mejias told The Brooklyn Paper. “The [city] wanted to know what was going on with [the event], and they didn’t think it was a good idea.”

In a subsequent e-mail, he went further:

“The Paping Soapbox Derby is no longer with us,” he wrote. “Who killed it? The Brooklyn Paper? Jehovah? The city film permits department? No, it was me, John Mejias for trying to make good things in this world legit when they should be kept underground. No one is more sad than I. Sorry and thanks to everyone.”

Actually, no one is sadder than the fans and participants. Mejias said that before the cancelation, so many would-be derby day participants e-mailed him and begged for a starting position down “Suicide Hill,” that he had to cap the field at 12.

Mejias said he would have required all participants to sign waivers assuming total, personal responsibility, but ultimately, the process to become an official event was too great, and Mejias pulled the plug.

“It used to be fun when it was just a couple of people, but it’s just too much now,” he said. “I’m just going to put it out of my mind.”

Under the rules of the derby, drivers could propel themselves in any vehicle that shoots down the hill powered by nothing but gravity, ball-bearings, grease and aerodynamics. In the past, participants created vehicles from a NordicTrac, a round barbecue grill, and wheelchairs. Mostly, it’s lots of scrap wood and futons, Mejias said.

More advanced soapbox engineers rigged bicycle brakes onto their vehicles, but others used levers to grind against the road at the bottom of the long hill. And some racers just padded their shoes and used their feet, Fred Flintstones-style.

But not this year. The loss will be most keenly felt in Brooklyn Heights, where the neighborhood’s Brooklyn Heights Blog once called Mejias’s race “one of New York’s most exciting and inclusive events.”

Speed freaks competed in the Paping Soapbox Derby down Columbia Heights in 2006. The race was scrubbed in 2007 amid objections from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose headquarters is on the block. This year, organizers found a loophole.
Irene Tejaratchi Hess

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