This Sunday, for the first time in 44 years, kooky homemade cars will race down McLaren Park.
It’s a revival by SFMOMA of a beloved 1970s event—and Sunday’s 2022 Soapbox Derby has Tomoko Kanamitsu, the museum’s public engagement director, to thank for its return.
During the height of the pandemic, Kanamitsu pondered a single question on repeat: Is there still a museum if the museum is closed?
She doubled down on her conviction that art should meet people where they are and, in the case of the pandemic, that mostly meant outdoors. And so the resurrection of the Soapbox Derby was born.
Dozens of artists have chipped in to create wacky, beautiful and unique gravity-powered vehicles for a family-friendly race along McLaren Park's John F. Shelley Drive. School groups, community organizations and even alumni from the 1970s are among the 56 teams participating.
“The legendary races in the ’70s were organized by a tight-knit artists community,” Kanamitsu said. “Our rendition features local artists across the Bay Area.”
To keep things traditional, one trophy will be awarded to the fastest car. However, others will be judged on criteria like “Most Amorphous” and “Most Colorful.”
“It’s our way of showing that we can be playful and have fun,” said Kanamitsu. “Art doesn’t always have to be serious, and we don’t want the public to view SFMOMA as an institution built around elitism.”
Ahead of the race, we caught up with a few of the artists as they put finishing touches on their homemade cars.
Watch Out For The “Shrimp Boyz”
Artists Andrew Sungtaek Ingersoll and Oliver Hawk Holden are the creators behind this kooky sea creature automobile, complete with a saddle. As the co-founders of Expert Art Workers LLC, an artist workshop in the Bayview, they’re no strangers to making kinetic sculptures, and this piece doesn’t fall short. Ingersoll and Holden plan to ride the 10-foot shrimp, made out of papier-mâché, down the hill dressed as cowboys.
When asked about the inspiration behind the design, Ingersoll recalled when he and Holden briefly got involved in the shrimping business.
“It’s like this inside joke,” said Ingersoll. “I heard the shrimp breeding business was lucrative, so I found this dude on Craigslist and met up with him in the parking lot at Grocery Outlet to buy a bunch of live shrimp.”
Ingersoll’s shrimping business was short-lived, literally. All his shrimp eventually died. Still, Ingersoll says he still has “this thing for shrimp.”
Learn the Language of “Knots”
Out of a studio in the Mission District’s Heath Ceramics building, artist Windy Chien creates sculptures and installations that transcend the commonplace patterns of knots.
“There are more than 4,000 documented knots in the world,” said Chien. “I think of them as artifacts of human ingenuity and they predate the invention of the wheel.”
Chien’s car features a white dome with 295 rings created from over 5,000 feet of rope. Each ring has 20 knots and the dome will sit on a platform with four wheels.
“My mission is to create more awe and understanding in the world, and I’m using knots to do that,” Chien added.
Long Live “Lucky Penny”
The four artists who go by "Tight Quarters”—the name reflects their 200-square-foot workspace in the Inner Sunset—specialize in ceramics, illustration and printing. The collective’s derby car, which they call “Lucky Penny,” consists of a seven-foot shopping cart full of giant random grocery items like a rat trap, Spam and an It's-It ice cream bar.
“It’s just so San Francisco,” said Amanda Durbin, one of the artists in the collective. “You see one of these carts around, and you just know you are in the city.”
The cart is painted red and yellow to commemorate one of San Francisco’s most beloved greasy spoons, Lucky Penny Diner, which closed in 2015. “It’s just our way of memorializing Lucky Penny,” Durbin said.
SFMOMA’s 2022 Soapbox Derby is this Sunday, April 10, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m at the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater at 40 John F. Shelley Drive, McLaren Park. The race starts at 11 a.m. The trophy ceremony begins 15 minutes after the final racer goes down the hill.
Meaghan Mitchell can be reached at [email protected]