Soapbox derbies make a welcome comeback in Wales

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Media captionFootage shows the soapboxes in the 2015 race

Wacky racers battling it out in homemade carts not only make for a great spectacle, but they are helping to revitalise towns and bring communities together.

Soapbox derbies, also known as downhill derbies or gravity races, have been making something of a comeback across Wales this summer.

Events have been held in Haverfordwest and Fishguard in Pembrokeshire alongside an already established race in Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan.

Soapboxes come in all shapes and sizes and were traditionally made from wooden soap crates - hence the name.

Propelled by gravity, they are raced either against the clock or against other competitors, with drivers having to negotiate a variety of obstacles.

Most derbies have a common set of rules:

  • No motor
  • At least four wheels
  • The driver must wear a helmet
  • A push at the top is allowed
  • The cart may have some type of brakes
Image copyright Penarth Town Council
Image caption A beach-themed gravity racer heads down Cliff Hill in Penarth
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Media captionA soapbox derby in Pembroke Dock in the early 1990s

The resurgence of the soapbox derby in the UK might be attributed to major events such as the Red Bull Soapbox Race and the Goodwood Festival of Speed.

In Wales, a soapbox derby has been held as part of the Penarth Summer Festival since 2009, with this year's event taking place on 16 July.

Keri Hutchings, deputy town clerk of Penarth Town Council, had the idea of bringing racing to carnival day and said it was a "phenomenal success immediately".

The Downhill Derby is held on Cliff Hill, with hundreds of spectators lining the route down to the esplanade.

"There are around 20 entries each year and we're able to make the event safe very easily," said Mr Hutchings.

"When we organised it we didn't know of any other downhill derbies in Wales. It makes us quite unique, and hopefully we've inspired other events," he added.

Image copyright Penarth Town Council
Image copyright Penarth Town Council
Image caption The Penarth race is judged on both speed and the creativity of the soapboxes

'Breathe some life'

Haverfordwest Grand National Soapbox Derby took place on 30 July, organised by the town council, round table and rotary club as part of Haverfordwest Festival Week.

Cllr Jon Collier said: "Like a lot of people we'd seen the Red Bull events and wanted to put on a big family-friendly fun event.

"We also wanted to breathe some life back into Haverfordwest, as like many market towns it's in the doldrums."

He added: "I see the soapbox derby almost as a replacement for the traditional carnival. It's an excuse for teams to dress up and for people's creative streak to shine through."

Seventeen teams entered, including Can't Agree On Anything, which was made up of friends Timothy Brentnall, Joe Edwards and Neil Davies, who all have an interest in engineering.

Image copyright Timothy Brentnall
Image caption "Other teams' standards of engineering were intimidating," said Mr Davies
Image copyright Timothy Brentnall
Image caption Can't Agree On Anything's finished soapbox

At one point it looked like the team was not going to make it to the starting line. Just a week before race day they realised their cart was overweight and decided to build a new version.

Mr Davies said: "We raided a scrap yard, found some components and hastily managed to throw something together."

The team went on to record the fastest time around the course.

'Leicester City moment'

"Winning was a fantastic feeling, probably the closest thing to winning a GP [Grand Prix] that we'll experience," said Mr Davies.

"With such strong competition it was described by some commentators as a Leicester City moment."

The team praised the organisers of the event, saying it was "a great way to get the local community together".

Cllr Collier said they had plans to stage it again next year and hoped other towns in Pembrokeshire would stage a derby.

"It would be fabulous to see a whole series of races throughout the summer," he said.

Image copyright Timothy Brentnall
Image caption Left to right: Neil Davies, Joe Edwards and Timothy Brentnall were the winners of the Haverfordwest Soapbox Derby
Image copyright Lisa Townley
Image copyright Lisa Townley

Fishguard hosted its first derby on 13 August.

Organised by Fishguard and District Round Table, large crowds turned out to watch 13 soapboxes race through the town centre and Lota Park.

Michael Annis from the round table said: "It went even better than we could have wished.

"It was a lot of hard work to set up the course and to clear away after, but I think it was worth it."

The round table is now planning on making the soapbox derby an annual event.

"We have already had people ask for next year's entry forms," added Mr Annis.

Image copyright Brian Sandow Photography
Image caption Teams competing in the Fishguard race were required to raise money for charity
Image copyright Brian Sandow Photography

'Revitalise community spirit'

Another soapbox derby is being planned next spring in Pembroke Dock, where several soapbox derbies have been held in the past.

Businessman and member of the town's regeneration team, James Parfitt, said the team "loved the idea of using a soapbox derby to help revitalise community spirit".

The group is hoping to get permission to hold it in Memorial Park.

"The soapbox derby in the park could have two great outcomes - building community spirit and raising awareness of the special nature and history of the park," said Mr Parfitt.

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