This is the Rutherford Downhill Derby
By Jennifer Ersalesi
The third annual Rutherford Downhill Derby will take place on June 15, 2019 on West Pierrepont Ave. Families have enjoyed building unique cars for this exciting race. The Rutherford Downhill Derby Committee is excited for this year’s Downhill Derby Event. This is Rutherford spoke to Jeff Jordan, the founder of the Rutherford Downhill Derby, about how the RDD has progressed over the years and what makes it such a fun, family activity.
TIR: Where the did the idea for the Rutherford Downhill Derby come from? Did you do any events like this when you were younger?
Jeff Jordan: I lived in San Francisco for several years after college and heard about an "illegal" soap box derby that took place every year on Halloween. Having missed out on Derbies as kids, a few friends and I decided to take part in the event and re-purposed an old refrigerator we found on the sidewalk. We gutted the refrigerator, added steering and braking and left the freezer intact as a makeshift beer cooler (laughs). When we arrived on race day, we were shocked by the quality of the cars others had built. We also weren't prepared for the Mad Max, free for all element of the race and ended up with some flat tires and a slow roll down Bernal Hill (though the re-purposed freezer beer cooler was a big hit). When we moved to Rutherford from Jersey City in 2012, I was taken with the great hills in town and impressed with the number of people I met who were skilled makers and designers. With three kids of my own, it occurred to me that a derby would be a fun family event and give parents a chance to design and build something with their kids.
TIR: When was the first Downhill Derby?
JJ: The first race was on Father's Day weekend in 2017. We like the idea of having the race that weekend as it reinforces the parent-child connection and has the added benefit of being just after most spring sport seasons end and just before the start of summer.
TIR: How have you seen the Derby grow and change over the last few years?
JJ: Initially, it was myself, Chris Conti, Hament Patel, and Alex Britez trying to pull everything together. We got a big boost when Mark O'Connor took the concept to the Mayor and Council on our behalf and made us an official town committee. Since then, we have tripled the size of the organizing committee and added serious firepower with some of the smartest, hardest working Rutherfordians I know. We have also refined race day by shortening the course, modifying the starting system, adding additional safety features and incorporating more of an emphasis on the design and fabrication of the cars with various awards that aren't related to speed.
TIR: To what do you attribute the success of the Derby?
JJ: I think the success of the Derby is a function of it taking place in Rutherford. It sounds a bit corny, but I am from the Midwest. I've lived on both coasts and I have never experienced a community like ours. Whether it is donating time and energy organizing the event, volunteering to assist on race day, building and racing a car, providing sponsorship money or coming out to cheer on the participants, this is the kind of event that would probably fail in most places, but thrives in Rutherford.
TIR: There are many factors that go into the planning and implementation of the Derby, what might people not realize is part of this process?
JJ: A few weeks before the race each year, we meet with the heads of the various municipal departments who are impacted by the event. That includes the Police, EMS, Fire Marshal, Health Department, DPW, Recreation, and the Borough Administrator to go over the day's events and our plan. There is a lot to consider when closing streets, serving food and beer, providing bathrooms and bleachers, cleanup, etc. and the department leaders have been really helpful working with us to make it happen.
TIR: Alex Britez, RDD committee member, told TIR, "One of the biggest gifts I believe we can give our children is the opportunity to bring their creativity to life. The Downhill Derby has been a perfect outlet for spending some quality time with my kids collaborating on their vision while at the same time introducing them to fundamental engineering concepts. As a parent, I would love to instill in them the notion that if they could dream it, then with some work, they could figure out how to build it. This idea is so empowering for both kids and adults. Most importantly, it is just plain fun to share this experience with them. Knowing that other families are getting a similar benefit brings a smile to my face." Why do you think the Downhill Derby is a great event for kids and families?
JJ: One of our primary objectives with the Derby is to encourage families and friends to work together on a fun and challenging project. Designing a car and then figuring out how to build it provides an opportunity for kids (and sometimes their parents) to learn about design, mechanics, materials and fabrication while working together. I think most of us have limited opportunities to do such things with our kids and it is a great way to spend time together. I will never forget talking to a fellow dad at the first race and hearing him tell me how much it meant to him to spend time with both his daughter and his own father building the car and then seeing the huge smile on her face as she raced it. Priceless.
TIR: Do adults participate in the Derby race? What do you think they enjoy most about it?
JJ: The Derby is open to just about everyone. Our youngest racers can be in 1st grade and we have had participants over 80 years of age. Many of the cars that get entered are driven by kids and then again by their parents. We have had a lot of independent adult entries as well. As adults, I think we enjoy doing something that reminds us of the joy of being a kid racing down a hill on a summer afternoon.
TIR: What do you often find surprising and unique about the cars that enter the race?
JJ: We didn't know what to expect the first year. The race I participated in while in San Francisco primarily involved cars that were built by skilled mechanics and fabricators (with the very obvious exception of our rolling refrigerator-laughs). There was a lot of welding and creativity. We wanted to have a similar outcome here and purposely left the requirements as open as possible to encourage original thinking. When the cars started showing up for our inaugural race, we were blown away by what people had accomplished. From really well executed, simple designs to super sophisticated feats of mechanical engineering, the cars definitely exceeded our expectations. Last year's race took it to another level with great theme ideas, excellent craftsmanship and further refinements to the previous year's designs. We can't wait to see what this year brings.
TIR: You build a car with your sons every year. What do you enjoy about this project?
JJ: I have three boys and decided I would build a car with each one of them the first year. I barely managed to do it and last year I decided to focus on refining the steering and braking in each of the cars with them instead of making new cars. As an architect, I enjoy designing and building and these cars are a fun and manageable outlet for that, as well as, an opportunity to share that joy with my boys.
TIR: What should people know about the Derby race coming up on June 15th this year?
JJ: This is the third edition of the Derby and we continue to improve the event. Last year was a great time and this year should be even more fun. We encourage everyone to give it a shot. Whether you are a skilled builder or someone who doesn't know the difference between a table saw and a jig saw, this is a great opportunity to make something with your kids or for yourself and have a good time riding it down the hill. If you can't enter a car this year, please plan to come out and support the event anyway.
TIR: Any tips for those who are building a car for the race?
JJ: If this is your first time, keep it simple. There are a lot of design resources online and even the most basic car can be a fun construction and racing experience. And if you have done it before, try a different approach this year. We have eleven awards categories that don't involve having the fastest car and can be a fun way to get involved without having a degree in mechanical engineering. Oh, and trying to build three cars at once is a bad idea (laughs).
TIR: Where do people register for the Derby race?
JJ: You can register online at https://www.rutherforddownhillderby.org/register. The Derby website also has information about the course, car specifications, the different awards categories and photos from the first two Derby's.