The sixth iteration of the Ray-Cam Soapbox Derby took off on Friday, bringing the residents of the Strathcona neighbourhood together in an all-ages event that mixes community, collaboration and competition.
The derby is the annual highlight of the Never Again Steal Karz (NASKARZ) program, a partnership between the Vancouver Police Department, the Ray-Cam Cooperative Centre and other community advocates.
VPD Sgt. Tim Houchen and youth worker Alex Vasiljevic launched the program in 2005 to try to channel the fascination with cars they noticed in many at-risk minors. Since then, the project has seen steady growth and has been credited by the ICBC with helping reduce youth auto theft in the city by 71 per cent.
Attendees of the NASKARZ summer program work every day for about four weeks to turn old wheelbarrows and scrap metal into a “roadworthy” derby box, which they then race down a haybale circuit in the alley behind the Ray-Cam centre. The alley was previously known for being a dump spot for stolen cars.
The event has a casual atmosphere, with several activities to keep the kids entertained. There’s face painting, free lollipops, put-put golf and organised basketball games. The main attraction, however, is definitely the races.
Bales of hay contour the racetrack, providing ample cushioning for a contest with lots of crashes but thankfully no bruises or tears. Young kids, teenagers and adults line the track from top to bottom, cheering on the participants.
Walker Wakeman, who’s 15 and a three-year veteran of the derby, described the race as “a little bit of a rush.”
“My first race, I caught air on the speed bump,” he said. “I was in the air for a good two seconds.”
He lives in the neighbourhood with his dad, Guy Wakeman, and is a two-year MVP of the event. He’d already won his first race of the day and was set to compete later on in the day as part of the VPD team.
His dad is obviously proud, but says the important thing for the participants is the sense of community.
“Of course, he likes to win,” Guy said with a laugh. “But participation for him, and just being here, are a big piece of it.”
Although he didn’t build the car that he raced in today, Walker participated in the NASKARZ program last summer.
He is one of the older kids in attendance, which likely explains Walker’s ability to stay away from the haybales. Justice Canney, one of the younger participants of the derby, said his race had gone “bad” because he “crashed and lost.” But when he was asked what he liked about the event, he excitedly told the Courier: “I like that I can crash!”
Around 70 kids were set to race throughout the day. Occasionally, a younger participant will get nervous and drop out, but plenty of hands shoot up to fill the soapbox car.
Irwin Oostindie, a coordinator with the Ray-Cam centre, said the event “reflects the culture of the community.”
“It’s a free family event. It shows off the kids’ initiative around learning how to build cars, but there’s other kids doing dancing, making art, doing sports — so it’s really a reflection of all the different programs that Ray-Cam runs,” he said.
For people like Sgt. Houchen, the changes in the neighbourhood are clear.
“You get these kids now,” Houchen said as he high-fived a passing girl, “that can do that with a cop, right? Ten years ago, that wasn’t happening. It’s that whole relationship that the whole community has. Her cousin has been in the program. Her friends are in the program. And when she’s a leader, she’s bringing her friends and her siblings to the program.”
As the races keep going, he helps the kids get in the car, reminds them to put on their helmets and gives them bits of sage advice, like “don’t oversteer.”
“They’ll build the karts, and then they have a great deal of pride from learning how to do it,” Houchen said. “And then it’s doubled when they see an event like this where they’re putting on for their community. So you imagine, that would never happen in their neighbourhood where they’re able to put on an event.”