On a roll! Soapbox derby flies by Witnesses • Brooklyn Paper

On a roll! Soapbox derby flies by Witnesses

Irene Tejaratchi Hess

The organizer of an old-fashioned Soapbox Derby has zoomed right past the disapproving elders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who last year blocked the gravity-fueled go-cart race along Brooklyn Heights’ legendary “Suicide Hill” because of liability issues.

Soapbox derby founder John Mejias told The Brooklyn Paper that this year’s event would go on as it had for four of the five previous summers because a friend had secured a city film permit and will capture the action as part of a documentary on “kinetic sculpture.”

That film permit means that Columbia Heights between Middagh and Doughty streets — a mountainous speedway for soapbox derby racers — is officially closed for the Aug. 23 event and has the sanction of the mayor’s office despite continuing opposition by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society to the free-for-fall.

“We still have serious reservations” about participants’ safety, said spokesman David Semonian.

Last year, those reservations were enough to convince the NYPD to block Mejias’s formerly off-the-radar-screen event, which was popular with skateboarders, sprinters, and other speed freaks. The event took place in Manhattan instead.

But Mejias dreamed of returning to what he calls the perfect place for a derby — Columbia Heights — which happens to pass right next to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ headquarters.

Semonian said the Witnesses “certainly have no objections to the derby itself,” but that the sect is “concerned about our liability … that could occur in connection with our building.”

But those concerns were shunted aside after filmmaker Jose Manelo got the proper permit. As an added bonus, “those pesky parked cars” will be gone, Mejias said.

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

More advanced soapbox engineers have rigged bicycle brakes onto their vehicles, but others use levers to grind against the road at the bottom of the long hill. And some racers just pad their shoes and use their feet, Fred Flintstone-style, Mejias said.

“Our race is based mostly on how much good junk you found on the street, not how much money you spend,” Mejias said. “The crowd will vote for best looking car.”

The rules are simple: cars must be able to steer and brake, drivers must wear a helmet, and pre-registration is required. And, of course, “good, friendly attitudes are also appreciated,” Mejias said.

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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