These People Are NOT Kidding Around With Their Soapbox Cars
In soapbox racing, when you cross the finish line isn’t nearly so important as how you get there. Showmanship trumps speed when the point is seeing which team can build the zaniest gravity-powered car and ride it with flair as it flies down a hill.
Alan Powdrill learned that photographing some of the drivers and wild rigs at the Red Bull Soapbox Race UK in London. Around 20,000 spectators descended on Alexandra Palace in July to see 55 cars race down a hill outside the arena. It’s a spectacle in the best way. “These daredevils tick a lot of boxes—heroic, dressed up, and ready to show off their homemade creations,” Powdrill says.
Contestants spent months transforming humble materials like plywood, corrugated metal and paper maché into dragons, fighter jets, and old-fashioned steam trains. Aside from the tires and wheels, all were built completely from scratch with obsessive attention to detail. Teams go all-out with their themes, decorating their cars and themselves. Darth Vader, Luke, Obi-Wan and a cardboard R2-D2 showed up with a landspeeder. The royal family (complete with baby Prince George) arrived in support of a gilded ride dubbed the “Nobility Scooter.”
However British the humor (and Austrian the sponsors) may be, the sport is an American export. It grew from the Soap Box Derby, which started in Ohio in 1933. The first cars were rudimentary, often made of soap crates, buggy wheels and scrap metal. Today’s cars are far more sophisticated, and the Soap Box Derby is worldwide event thats inspired countless wacky variations with crazy themes.
Powdrill wanted to dial up the quirky qualities of his subjects, so he staged the portraits to make them resemble storybook characters. He photographed poker-faced teams against a screen using a Hasselblad H4 with a Phase 65+ digital back. Later, he digitally inserted them into prosaic industrial and urban backgrounds he shot around London. It’s a deadpan fusion of fantasy and reality, reflecting the silly, carefree spirit of the race.
None of the race winners made Powdrill’s final cut, but winning isn’t the point. It is merely a bonus added to the joy soapbox racers share strutting their stuff. Most didn’t even reach the finish line, often colliding into the hay bales lining the course, all their hard work smashed to smithereens in an instant. “The soapbox cars looked very different at the top of the hill than at the bottom,” Powdrill says. And that was part of the fun, too.