Downhill Derby Returns!
Updated: Mar 10
By Jennifer Ersalesi
With community events returning, the Rutherford Downhill Derby committee is excited to invite everyone to either participate in or attend the Downhill Derby on June 18th. Jeff Jordan, one of the founders of the Rutherford Downhill Derby, told This is Rutherford more about the upcoming event and reflected on past Derby memories.
TIR: Unfortunately the Downhill Derby had to be put on a two-year delay due to the pandemic, but it is back this year! What is the most exciting part about bringing it back?
Jeff Jordan: We are really excited to welcome a new group of participants who are either new to town or may have been too young the last time around. And, of course, we are looking forward to the return of our regulars who have no doubt spent the last couple of years fine-tuning their existing cars or building completely new ones.
TIR: Have any changes been made since the last Downhill Derby?
JJ: The course will still run down West Pierrepont Ave (aka Derby Hill) with the starting gates at Riverside Terrace and the finish line at Carmita Avenue in front of the American Legion. The look of the event, however, will feel different. We won't have the bleachers at the finish line this year so we can create better sightlines between the Legion lawn and the course. Our plan is to set up the beer garden, vendors, and food on the lawn closer to the finish so the entire event feels more connected. We will also have the participating cars lined up along Carmita Ave before the race so everyone can check out the great work of all the participants.
TIR: Who can participate?
JJ: The race is open to everyone. Kids younger than 1st Grade must ride with an adult, but everyone else can drive their own car. We seem to always have a large group of elementary and middle school-aged kids, as well as, a solid contingent of adult racers. Individuals, friends, families, school clubs, etc are all encouraged to participate. We've even had some grandparents take part over the years.
TIR: What if someone wants to participate but isn’t sure how to build a derby car, any suggestions?
JJ: The idea of building a car can be intimidating, but there are lots of ways to participate. We have two classes of cars: Maker Class (custom designed and homemade cars) and Soap Box Derby Class (the classic, officially sized, and sanctioned cars). Some racers have found both classes of cars available online or from previous participants. Others have opted to buy the "official" Soap Box Derby kits to assemble themselves. And for the last Derby in 2019, we held a build-it workshop at Lincoln Park where we helped build 20+ cars using a basic design that most participants then personalized with their own paint jobs, accessories, etc. If there is interest, we'll do it again this year. Our goal is to give everyone, regardless of their skill set, the opportunity to be involved and maybe even learn some new design and construction skills while having fun creating something with their friends and family.
TIR: This is a community event. How does it bring the community together?
JJ: Everyone enjoys a good race and this never disappoints. We typically run two cars side by side so they are competing against each other while establishing times that are used to crown an overall champion. The racing lasts for several hours with multiple runs for each car. While that is happening there is food, drink, and music. People often bring lawn chairs and set up along the course or on the Legion lawn and make an afternoon of it.
TIR: Can you share a special memory you have of one of the past Downhill Derby events?
JJ: There have been many special memories over the years from the great team we have running the event to the smiles on the racer's faces to the amazing cars people build, but my favorite memory comes from the first year. We had spent months planning the perfect event and race day came with a chance of rain in the forecast. Despite the questionable weather, we had a huge turnout of racers and spectators that far exceeded our expectations. We started the racing with a light drizzle that turned into a full-on deluge. The course became too slippery for the cars, the timing equipment, and audio gear were compromised and things seemed to be falling apart. We decided to pause the event to wait out the storm and give ourselves the opportunity to recalibrate. Nearly everyone left. It was disappointing after all of our effort and excitement. As we were standing around discussing whether or not to cancel the race, a grandfather pulled me aside and told me how grateful he was for having had the opportunity to build a car with his son and grandson. He said the experience had brought them closer together and he would always treasure the memory. Soon thereafter, the storm moved out, the sun returned and the race was on. As we were adjusting the course, the racers and crowd returned and the excitement built right back up. The eventual winners were a group of Union School friends who had cobbled together a car out of random parts and had to make a last-minute repair before racing down the hill and setting the fastest time of the day. It was perfect.
Here are the links to register: