Artists’ Soapbox Derby returns to Rondout this Sunday

Kingston Artist Soapbox Derby rolls in Sunday.

We’ve all heard tales of annual parties so legendary that would-be guests kept turning up on the doorsteps of befuddled new tenants, years after the original hosts had moved away. Apparently, the hilly final stretch of Kingston’s Broadway, ending at the Strand along the Rondout riverfront, has achieved that iconic status, thanks to a quarter-century of gravity-fueled mayhem known as the Kingston Artists’ Soapbox Derby. Even the pandemic of 2020 couldn’t stop it altogether.

“We did have it last year. A couple of diehard people showed up. We kept it alive,” says Michael DiPleco, a professional photographer who is serving as the chair of this year’s Soapbox Derby, happening this Sunday. “I’ve been doing the event since 2004 — as a participant, as a tech person. Some years I did Gravity Control for them.”

If you’ve ever attended a Derby since its 1995 debut, you’ll know that those doughty volunteers in the Gravity Control tee-shirts are sometimes the only buffer between a runaway rolling object and the vulnerable spectators who pack the sidewalks bordering Broadway below Spring Street. The Derby isn’t a race, and participating nonmotorized wheeled vehicles are, like skiers, never supposed to lose control; but minor steering mishaps have been known to happen on occasion. It’s all part of the silly fun.

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The small 2020 gathering was unofficial and didn’t involve shutting the street down to regular automotive traffic. Though it was slow getting off the mark due to the uncertainties this past spring about the safety of public gatherings, this year’s event is the real thing. The street will be closed for a few hours, but the course will be a little shorter, ending at Abeel Street, since some of the restaurants on the last block of Broadway now depend on their clientele being able to eat at curbside tables. (If there are any up sides to COVID-19, the rise of a European-style outdoor café culture in America must be one of them.)

The original Kingston Artists’ Soapbox Derby was founded by George and Nancy Donskoj, who owned an art gallery at the corner of Broadway and Spring, which became the starting line. The event proved wildly popular, and the crowds grew every year. Entries ranged from the most basic go-karts built by kids to ambitious rolling works of art crafted by noted Hudson Valley sculptors. It provided an irresistible challenge to tinkerers to repurpose piles of junk accumulating in their garages into imaginative assemblages on wheels.

But then the couple went their separate ways, and a succession of other organizers took the helm. There were a few years when the Derby didn’t happen at all — to the chagrin of local businesses, who love to feed the crowds who pour in to see the action. It’s a great way to entice new visitors to check out the Rondout District, with all its summertime attractions; many of them come back for further exploration.

According to DiPleco, management of the Derby went astray somewhat in recent years, including an ill-advised attempt to repackage it as the “Artists’ Derby,” sans the do-it-yourself aspect that has been an enduring part of its charm, with an eye toward making it profitable. “They tried to change it into something it’s not,” he says. “You can’t brand it. This is a fun event.”

This year, DiPleco says with palpable relief, the Derby is back under the aegis of the not-for-profit Hudson Valley Community Productions, which also puts on the annual Sinterklaas community celebrations in Kingston and Rhinebeck. He and the other current organizers are hoping to spin off their own 501 (c) (3) organization to keep the Derby rolling on into the foreseeable future. They’re also looking for volunteers to help out on the day of the event, Sunday, August 15.

The Derby itself will take off at 1 p.m., but the street will close down and the festivities begin at noon. The Brassroots Band will wander around and play while late entries sign up at a table at the Spring Street start line. Radio Kingston will provide the emcee for the event.

Organizers are hoping that same-day registration will ensure an impressive crop of soapbox vehicles, considering that many makers got a late start this year, along with an enthusiastic turnout of spectators. “We’re optimistic,” says DiPleco. “We’ve been in lockdown; we want to get out and do things!”

Because of the late date of this event getting greenlighted, there will be no food vendors on-site this year. But there are plenty of excellent restaurants in the immediate neighborhood, whose owners should be smiling after a rough year-and-a-half.

Because the Derby coincides with the regular Sunday Kingston Waterfront Farmers’ Market in T. R. Gallo Park, the Derby awards ceremony will be held in the nearby Pavilion. There will be prizes for both adult and youth entries, plus the People’s Choice Award, voted on by attendees, and the Rondout Reject (a/k/a the Horse’s Ass Award) for the favorite failed attempt.

It costs money to make all this happen, so if you’d like to donate, visit https://gofund.me/44cdbdd2. To register your vehicle online before Sunday, visit https://kingstonartistsoapboxderby.com. The entry fee is $25 for adults, free for kids aged 12 and under.