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A long, fun day at the races and, oh, the winner was Jonathan Spinney
From the get-go, Sunday's second annual gravity race got people feeling good - whether they'd started months ago to dream about building a car, or just decided on a whim to take a Sunday spin up to Gay Head to see what was going on. In the tradition of the Thanksgiving horse races from 30 years ago, and the Crunch demolition derbies 20 years back, there's now Moshup's Challenge, a soapbox derby for the new century.
Spa Tharpe - driver, idea man, and impresario - checks out the accommodations aboard his WTFO car before the race. Photo by Brian Jolley
By the time all 28 entries had been registered and inspected and the first two racers were let loose to freewheel down a gradual slope on an almost perfect early spring day, it was well past the scheduled 1:30 start time. There was a ripple of impatience here and there, but most observers seemed happy to let the day come to them: why fight so much upbeat energy?
In a yellow jumpsuit that looked like it might have once been used by Red Adair to fight oil rig fires, Spa climbed half way up the ramp and grabbed a microphone to proclaim: "First of all, I guess it's just like... Wow!" Eloquent it wasn't, maybe, but the crowd went wild anyway. And he settled in quickly, first thanking the town of Aquinnah, its selectmen and woman, and police, then all the people who had helped organize the event, and finally the "entire Island of Martha's Vineyard for supporting the race and giving us the opportunity to have fun."
Jonathan Spinney looks on from the base of the ramp as his Superthunderstingcar is nursed toward the start position by the Crushco pit crew. Photo by Brian Jolley
Then he reminded the spectators, who numbered at least 1,500, that safety came first. Some of the cars would reach over 30 miles per hour, and their steering and braking might not be up to Massachusetts DMV inspection standards. "So if you see a car coming at you, get ready to jump. And even before anything happens, look around you for a nice soft bush to jump into, OK?" Easier said than done for those who'd settled into beach chairs around a grill and a cooler.
Seven tribe members then sang and drummed the Wampanoag Honor Song, and Aretha Witham followed with the Star Spangled Banner, a cappella.
From the ridiculous to the sublime. Dominic Dahl-Bredine (left) didn't have a chance against Kirsten Gannon. Photo by Brian Jolley
And that's the way it worked over the next three hours: two by two, cars that ranged from the futuristic to the nostalgic, from ingenious to spontaneous, shook, rattled, and rolled for a third of a mile down Moshup Trail. There were a few false starts and a couple of cars self-destructed before they got a good roll on, but most of the entrants made at least one successful run down the course.
As the goofier creations reminded skeptics, at least half the point was to have fun. Why else would five adults - led by Nancy and Jimmy Benoit - spend the afternoon sweltering inside stinky bunny costumes that they'd found on E-bay, and one of them, Jeff Vajac, tuck himself under an inverted mattress pad to steer the ridiculous - and fabulous - Carrot Car wherever its root might lead?
Rick Burgess's car reminded some oldsters of a slower, lower-tech time. Photo by Brian Jolley
At the other end of the spectrum, cars raced by John Belain, Matt Merry, Spa himself, and defending champ Jonathan Spinney were all business. Spinney had been working on the Superthunderstingcar for days, off and on, and off-Island to boot. Some parts of the fuselage were fabricated near New London, Conn., it was rumored. Did he have a connection at General Dynamics, where they build submarines? Most touts had Spinney and Spa in the final, with Merry and Belain at slightly longer odds.
But there was also room for low-tech invention. Isaac Taylor based his Mullet Over on three or four feet of pressure-treated two by ten, wheels that looked like they'd been liberated from a couple of golf caddies, and what looked like the handle from a come-along that served as the steering or the brake, or maybe both. When Isaac tucked himself into position, he looked like a jockey atop a thoroughbred, butt back on his heels and chin nestled between his knees. It looked ludicrous at first, and dangerous, but it was fast: on one run Isaac clocked 35 mph on one of those automated speed displays that police deploy on the outskirts of town: Speed Limit 25 - Your Speed 43, 41, 38, etc. as you try to slow down fast, without jamming on the brakes.
Lee Welch was a blur of bright color in the Pink Squid Mobile. Photo by Ezra Blair
Isaac started working on his car the day before the race. "I think I had about three solid hours into it," he said.
There was also room for women at the wheel this year. Kirsten Gannon, Robin Smith, and Emily Bramhall all strapped on helmets and took a ride. For Robin, it ended all too quickly, when one of her rear wheels buckled when the rubber met the road, and her buggy veered into a hay bale a few feet off the ramp. Emily Bramhall went to the race as a spectator, but made the fortuitous mistake of hanging around pit row long enough to get drafted to drive Ovid Ward's 1959 soapbox car, still in mint condition, though it looks like it should be in the Smithsonian. After a 20-yard test run she said to herself, "OK, I can do this." At the top of the ramp, she wasn't so sure. "I looked out there and it was a little overwhelming. Then I took two deep breaths, and I thought, this is just so much fun."
Speed's one thing, but looks matter, too. Dakota DelViento and Taylor Chisholm polish. Photo by Brian Jolley
Kirsten Gannon had second thoughts too, when she hopped aboard the Gannon and Benjamin entry. "If I could have gotten out of the car at the top of the ramp without looking like a fool, I would have. But when they let me go, before I got to the end of the ramp, I knew this is where I wanted to be. I think I hooted and hollered all the way down." Her message to other women who might be tempted to drive in the future? "Every girl should do it, and it helps to have a great team behind you."
Kirsten was finally eliminated by Isaac Taylor in one semifinal. Spinney and Tharpe met in the other semifinal - the most anticipated contest of the day. Again both cars ran fine, but Spinney's rolled more freely over the lower, flatter section of the course where he pulled ahead to stay. That set up the final between Spinney and Taylor, between high and low tech. Mullet Over got off the ramp first but Isaac couldn't hold the lead for long. High tech prevailed, so the winner, and still champion, is Jonathan Spinney, who was quick to credit his colleagues at Crushco, the up-Island adventure outfitters. "I couldn't have done it by myself. All along, I had help from so many people, especially Tim Vitalis."
As the last of the crowd melted into the evening there was talk about where to meet for dinner, where to party later. Spa Tharpe was already talking about next year's race, about challenging professional gravity racers in California, about more speed, and more fun.