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For gear-heads and speed-freaks it's all downhill Sunday
From the backwoods of West Tisbury to the back streets of Oak Bluffs, from Chappaquiddick to Aquinnah, there's an almost audible buzz among gear-heads and speed-freaks this week, in anticipation of the Moshup Challenge, Sunday's second annual gravity car race in Aquinnah. The first pair of racers are scheduled to roll down the start ramp at 1:30.
Spa Tharpe (left) and John Henry Patterson brainstorm over the frame of the WTFO entry in Patterson's West Tisbury shop. Photos by Whit Griswold
The race is the brainchild of Spa Tharpe, originator and/or instigator of any number of madcap happenings and contests on the Island over the last couple of decades. Tharpe is also the point man, and driver, for team WTFO (Where's The Fun, Over?). The idea of a gravity race came to him several years ago, but it took a while to germinate. When it did, it blossomed with a bang last spring, on April 3, when hundreds of winter-weary Islanders drove as far west as they could to watch 28 four-wheeled contraptions, using only gravity as their driving force, slide silently down the road from the circle by the Gay Head cliffs toward Philbin Beach.
Last year's line-up included everything from a modified lawn mower to sleek creations that looked like they came out of a 1960s Popular Science article on futuristic one-man car-pods. The winner was Jonathan Spinney, a carpenter who builds and races motorcycles in his spare time. With the backing of his colleagues at Crushco, a Chilmark company that builds houses and outfits adventurers, Spinney beat the fleet in his Super Thunder Sting Car - a slender machine with two main wheels, and two others that looked about as useful as dewclaws on a dog. It was new territory for Spinney, who says that ever since he had a ride in a go-cart as a kid, "I've always wanted to put motors on things." Still, he added, "it was kind of liberating to not have to think about an engine."
Matt Merry will be at the helm of the copper-bodied 72 car being campaigned by David Merry & Sons.
To Spinney, the three key elements are rolling resistance, wind resistance, and the frontal element - that is, "the smallest picture that you present to the wind." No one's seen his entry for this year's race, since he's assembling it off-Island, but everyone's wondering what he's got up his sleeve.
Ovid Ward, the race manager who's also a consultant to Tharpe's WTFO team, thinks the key to a successful design is big wheels, to get over the bumps in the road more smoothly, and good bearings, to allow those big wheels to spin freely. Ward, who has a background in both automobile and boat design, thinks aerodynamics are over-rated, that they don't affect a moving body until it's going at least 40 mph.
For every design theory that's been vetted and debated this week, there's at least one rumor flying from town to town, from shop to garage. There was talk of a two-man racer being assembled in the deep reaches of Chappaquiddick. Another entrant was supposed to have put $3,000 into his car. Neither turned out to be true, but the facts tend to loosen up when they make the rounds from Dippin' Donuts to Fella's to PJ's to Jim's to Menemsha Texaco to Mocha Mott's.
* Total combined weight of cart and driver not to exceed 350 pounds.
Drivers must also sign a waiver, and cars will be inspected at time of registration by Carl Widdiss, Ovid Ward, and Kenny Belain.
As he did last year, Ward is planning to enter the soapbox car he built 50 years ago, as a kid growing up in Virginia. Only thing is, he got bigger, but the car didn't, and he needs a driver "who's over 18 [as all entrants must be], but under five feet, with a skinny butt" [to fit into the pint-sized racer]. Any volunteers?
Sunday, Welch will jam himself into a car he's put together over the last couple of weekends, using plywood, the frame of a bike trailer, steel pipe, bicycle brakes, beach toys, sheet metal, a football, and the windshield he took off an old motorcycle. It's all pink, and yes, it looks like a squid.