Downhill Daredevils

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Like many other kids growing up in the 80s, the holidays were a huge deal to me. Christmas was the big one as it lasted a whole month, and Thanksgiving served as the kick-off to the season. Halloween was a major event, and Easter was sort of a mashup between Halloween and Thanksgiving. Those four were the titans of my youth, but one more was a member of this pantheon of celebrations, and what a celebration it was.

Willamina’s Old Fashioned Fourth of July was the type of small-town event that has been immortalized on film and in literature as backdrops of nostalgia and community. My grandparents lived in town and that became our base camp for venturing out and enjoying the activities. It was also a place to see relatives that I may have not seen since Christmas as many would come out to visit and enjoy some hotdogs and hamburgers.

The festivities were varied and, to a kid, pretty epic. Being a big logging community, the morning featured a logger skills competition where the locals would see who the best lumberjack was. There was also a pancake breakfast and a classic car show that was fun to wander around in. Other mainstays were the parade, fireworks show, street vendors, and arm-wrestling competition. There were a few years where we had field competitions for the kids, in which kids would be pitted against each other to see who was best at the egg toss, and races involving gunnysacks or legs tied together in some semblance of an off-balanced three-legged creature. It was all great fun. But all these paled to the memories I have of the downhill derby races.

The downhill derby races were an opportunity for local dads to create non-OSHA-approved wood and steel deathtraps and launch their kids down the second largest hill in town. The first one I participated in was in 1987. My dad made a cart for my brother and me to share and it was fast. Bike tires in back, wagon tires in front, we would lie down face first on it, Superman-style, and steer via two pegs on the front axle. And like Superman, we flew. Luckily, we never had to check to see if our bodies were as indestructible as Supes, because there were no seatbelts and, why would we need helmets as we plunged down the summit face first, with nothing but our 80’s hairstyles to protect us from the then unthought of threat of concussions.

Let me tell you though, it felt fast. Nothing was more exhilarating than plunging downhill, like a wooden missile with a tiny human payload, knowing your adversary is falling quickly behind. Luckily, my brother and I didn’t have to face each other, since we only had the one cart, but I made it to the championships and took a respectable second place. Nick, took third, and my dad was inspired for the following year.

A quick note about my dad is that he is crafty. He loves making cool things with his hands and decided to go all out for the following year. Using an old oil barrel, he created a locomotive for my brother Nick and scratch-built a jeep out of plywood for my brother Joey. I decided to stick with the old cart but painted it red and put a motorcycle seat on it. Steering then became a problem, so we attached a rope to the axle, and I could steer by pulling on it. This was ill-advised, as I soon found out.

The day of the race arrived, and we were all up at the hill ready to start. Helmets were mandatory this year; likely due to someone seeing my brother and I fly down the hill headfirst previously. There were a lot more participants this year I believe as well. My brother’s carts got all the accolades due to how cool they were. I can’t say I wasn’t jealous, but I felt confident in old 72. After all, it nearly carried me to victory the year before. As foreshadowed previously, my first race showed me that instead of driving a hotrod, I had instead decided to tame a steed from Lucifer’s own herd. Having no tension in the steering mechanism meant that any pull on the reins would send the cart veering off hard to whatever direction I pulled. The motorcycle seat on the cart made it really hard to maintain my perch and road rashes became the theme of my day. I don’t think I completed one run down the hill without veering off course or getting thrown off. I even fell off and it rolled into an older spectator sitting on the curb, because of course there were no barriers protecting them. It was a rough day, but I made it through. Meanwhile, Nick in Old 97 handily crushed his opposition and cruised to a first-place trophy. Joey’s cart wasn’t as fast as either of ours, but he made participating look good.

Later that day, we hooked the carts up in a row to my buddy’s four-wheeler and entered the parade. We were proud of our rides and our dad for crafting them for us and had to show off Nick’s well-earned trophy. My brothers entered again the following year and I’m hazy on the memories. I do know that we started seeing more professional-looking go-carts showing up, many that looked like pedal-less trikes. Those ones started edging out a lot of the scratch build carts that had been the norm. Eventually, the races went away, but by that time I was more interested in running around town to meet up with friends I hadn’t seen since school got out.

Willamina’s Old Fashioned 4th of July still goes on every year, with some of the same events and some new ones. I don’t live nearby anymore but I still try to go if we happen to be visiting my parents. Some of it feels very familiar still when we go back, some very different. Visiting the hill where we saddled ourselves to the whims of gravity and a father’s engineering, it doesn’t seem as steep as I remember when I was a kid. It does still dredge up the memories from those years, both painful and victorious, and I can see my brothers and myself, our faces set with half terrified grins, flying down the hill once again.

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  1. Damn, the Downhill Derby sounds awesome. I wish I would have had something like this when I was younger. Hell, I wish I had something like this now! Those racers your dad made are impressive. He’s a man after my own heart. Great read. Thanks for sharing.

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