Irvine, California--There is no resisting the pull of gravity. As soon as we first learn to walk, we begin trying to figure out a way to turn the constant tug of nature's most basic force to our advantage.
First, we start rolling ourselves down grassy hills, then later we send tiny die-cast cars sliding down cardboard ramps to skitter across the kitchen floor. When we're eight years old, we carve little wooden racers for the Pinewood Derby. When we're twelve years old, we make big wooden racers for the All-American Soap Box Derby. Finally, we buy old, rusted-out automobiles and try to bump-start them by coasting down a hill. It's all the same thing.
So it was no surprise to see some of the most important car designers in Southern California turn gravity to their advantage in the Extreme Gravity Racing Series, held August 21. Six gravity-powered coaster cars from six automotive design studios raced one another for charity. Predictably, these vehicles looked thoroughly odd, like outlandish concoctions of CNC-milled aluminum, carbon fiber, and plain old bicycle wheels.
There's a little bit of buzz about Gravity Racing recently, as the wild street-luge sliders of the X-Games have reminded us all that you don't need an engine to experience the thrill of gravity. Maybe that's why the Pinewood Derby is returning to favor. Meanwhile the All-American Soap Box Derby is a tradition in its sixty-eighth year. NASCAR has even become a part of the event and it underwrote "Derby Dreams," a film about the race recently broadcast on Speed TV. Municipal governments are also staging free-for-all soapbox derby events, like the annual Lion's Club Downhill Races in San Pedro, California.
The Extreme Gravity Racing Series (XGR) first came together in Southern California in 2000, when Don MacAllister staged a low-key charitable event with soapbox derby cars in order to promote America Works for Kids, a jobs program for foster kids. Then MacAllister met Truman Pollard, the energetic director of design at Mazda North America's design studio, who suggested that his colleagues in automotive design throughout Southern California might also like to participate. As a result, both Mazda and Porsche ran wild-looking cars in exhibition runs during the 2003 XGR event.
This year, Pollard showed up at XGR's pre-race organizational meeting to find representatives from no less than Bentley, General Motors, Nissan, Porsche and Volvo. Pollard recalls, "NDA's Tom Semple walked right up to me and said, 'We're going to beat you.' I told him that he didn't even know what an Extreme Gravity Racer looked like. He said, 'We're still going to beat you.'" Apparently even car designers know how to talk trash, at least when racing is involved.
The XGR built its race track right on Premier Place in front of the headquarters of Premier Automotive Group in Irvine, California. The track began atop a huge wooden ramp some fifteen-feet high and seventy-five feet long, and then spilled onto the asphalt of the street and a 300-foot raceway lined with hay bales. During the morning, the Kids Gravity division featured twenty-nine soapbox derby racers built from proprietary kits, each piloted by a group of three kids, age seven to twelve. Assorted corporate sponsors funded these cars, and MacAllister says that for every corporate derby racer, he can create enough jobs for ten kids.
The driving task proved harder than it looked. The tiller-like controls of a soapbox derby racer (which give literal meaning to the phrase, "drive-by-wire"), are difficult to control, and the rugged transition between the ramp and the asphalt led a few cars to wobble into the hay bales at low speed. The Mazda-sponsored derby car won an award for its appearance, a wild, airbrushed, black-and-purple dragon motif done by Truman Pollard, who said he painted it in a single evening.
Meanwhile, the design guys tinkered all morning with their creations for the ProSeries event. There clearly were some divergent views about the importance of aerodynamics, friction and weight, and indeed the drivers' meeting revealed that there were also some divergent views about what exactly the rules were.
The Bentley boys showed up with the "Crewe's Missile" (Crewe, England, is the site of the Bentley factory), inspired by the Bentley EXP Speed 8 that won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2003. Actually, as co-designer Jim Shaw explained, this enclosed racer was a derivation of the car built for the annual Soapbox Challenge, a gravity race at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in Great Britain. Since 2000, Formula 1 and Le Mans teams have been building exotic gravity vehicles to coast down the famous hill on Lord March's estate, much the reverse of the vintage-racer hillclimb extravaganza that takes over the same weekend.
The Bentley proved to be an interesting piece built locally by the well-known craftsman at SoCal Speedshop. Co-designer Shaw told us that the Goodwood race requires a stout design philosophy, as on-board instrumentation has revealed that the cars reach 62 mph in a straight line and then attain 0.95 g in the long curve at the bottom of the Goodwood hill. The Bentley was very heavy as a result, and the XGR course looked too short to permit driver Dominic Najafi to take advantage of the car's 0.28 Cd.
Meanwhile, General Motors arrived with "The Flying Shoe" strapped in the back of a Chevy SSR. Frank Saucedo, the design director of GM's studio in West Hollywood, reportedly fell in love with the project immediately, and designers Radu Mutean and Alessandro Zessa came up with a slipper-like vehicle that recalled the classic, front-engine Formula 1 cars of the 1950s. Reportedly, there was some science under the car's silver skin, but we were never able to get close enough to find it.
Mazda went for an extreme aerodynamic solution with its "Gravity Series 2004," in which a carbon-fiber shell enclosed the driver. Like some of the deadlier Thompson Trophy air racers of the 1930s, the Mazda's canopy could only be detached from the outside, so a certain amount of bravery was required for the driver to recline feet-first on this aluminum skateboard.
The entry from Nissan Design America proved to be totally high concept, as designer Ray Devers admitted that his team had fallen in love with the constructive look of its racer. The driver sat almost upright in a fuselage made from graphite tubes connected by aluminum bridgework, and the whole business was wrapped in translucent plastic. With its four tall wheels, the Nissan entry had a unique antique charm, something like Wilbur and Orville's original 1904 Wright Flyer.
Porsche brought back the wild, three-wheeled "Soapboard," the car it had designed for the 2003 XGR event. Predictably, Porsche designers Martin Meade, Paul Terry and Siyong Song had done things utterly backwards (very much in the tradition of the Porsche 356 and 911 sports cars), and built a three-wheel device that packaged the driver's nose about six inches from the centerline of the front axle. Although the 2004 XGR rules called for four-wheel vehicles, the Porsche team "declined" the rulebook, and opted to participate on an exhibition basis. The combination of its unique appearance, elaborate fabrication, and rules controversy represented the essence of Porsche.
Surprisingly enough, the Volvo ProSeries looked even wilder than Porsche's entry. Again the driver had been packaged in a prone position, only he rode a very narrow ski attached to a couple of small wheels. Little outrigger wheels helped keep the package upright during the launch (meeting the letter of the rules), but were designed to spin free of the pavement, thereby reducing fiction. Meanwhile, the driver huddled under an aerodynamic canopy. Lead designer Doug Frasher told us his design's team's secret: "We all have experience with Pinewood Derby."
It took about an hour for the ProSeries teams to face off against one another. The Bentley was too heavy to get up to speed, while the Mazda seemed cursed with too much rolling resistance. The Nissan team had the best T-shirts ("Shift_gravity," a play on Nissan's advertising theme), and its racer was very speedy after the launch, but aerodynamics killed its top speed at the finish. The Porsche and Volvo were pretty evenly matched, but the three-wheeler prevailed because it was easier to drive. In the final, GM's surprisingly speedy "Flying Shoe" narrowly edged the Porsche Soapboard by a few inches, although the three-wheeler was running with a flat rear tire. The fastest finishing speed recorded during the day was 22 mph.
At the end of the day, all the design teams paid tribute to Don MacAllister's initiative in organizing this event as a fund-raiser for foster kids. At the same time, it was clear that the designers all relished the opportunity to build the vehicles unencumbered by concerns for bumper heights and airbag packaging. Hot rod designer Chip Foose, former GM design director Chuck Jordan, and a few others in the Southern California car design community even showed up to see what was going on and could be seen sketching ideas of their own afterwards. As Pollard says, "When you build one of these cars, there are no consumer clinics. It's pure design creativity. You don't have some corporate guy looking over your shoulder and asking, 'Do you think this really suits our brand character?'"
There's no telling what will become of this event next year. Now that NASCAR has taken on the All-American Soap Box Derby as part of its youth outreach program, there's more interest than ever in gravity racing. The success of the event at the Goodwood Festival Speed also proves that gravity racing isn't just for kids, either. We found ourselves looking at the XGR cars and wondering what they'd look like in a free-for-all race down the hill from the top of the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca, maybe as a lunchtime interlude at the Monterey historics.