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.