Daughter, dad are on a racing roll
Crystal Potter is used to rolling with the guys, so to speak. She broke records in her high school energy and power transmission class, in which she was the only female, when racing small cars wound up by a mousetrap.
Nearly 20 years later, she's still a competitor, but these days Potter has moved from racing in high school hallways to racing down Mount Tabor for the 20th annual Adult Soap Box Derby, where in true Portland fashion people dress up in costume, drink beer and watch those gutsier than they are zip down a mountain in a homemade vehicle propelled by nothing but gravity (working brakes are required).
This year's event will be held from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 19, on the west side of Mount Tabor in Southeast Portland.
Competing in the race since 2005, Potter has been the only woman with a car in the science car category, she says. But she doesn't go it alone.
Wanting the experience to be a shared one, she pulled in her father, Dan Potter, who makes a 2,000-mile trek from Illinois each year in what's become a family tradition. On a recent Saturday, he had arrived in town and the two were just getting going in their workshop on North Denver Avenue in the Kenton neighborhood.
Potter says she's a natural procrastinator and works better under pressure.
"I thought it would be a much better shared experience than just an individual experience. No one was interested, but I knew my dad would be totally in," Potter says.
Potter moved to Portland from State College, Pennsylvania, in 2005, and after only a week in Portland someone else introduced her to the derby, which started in 1997. Prior to that, a youth soapbox derby was held on Mount Tabor from 1956 to 1965.
"I instantly fell in love and decided I was never going to spend a summer in August not racing," Potter says. "So the next year, I started planning the car and nobody believed me — they said, 'You're going to build something? And then go down Mount Tabor with it?'"
But for those who know her well, Potter constructing a car from nothing and rolling down Portland's volcano is just something she'd do.
In their workshop while constructing this year's ride, Dan Potter excitedly told of his daughter's past accomplishments, including a project involving the construction of a catapult launcher with her sister back in junior high.
"Crystal has an amazing array of skill sets. She's very proficient in pretty much everything she does. And I trust that, I always have," he says, adding that her welding skills and mechanical knowledge are "pretty extensive."
Potter works now as a director for Figure Plant, a custom design and fabrication company that specializes in "building weird (stuff)," she says. Among many unique projects, the company built a 22-foot unicorn for the Project Pabst music festival, and built a capsule to cook chicken in space for another client.
Putting together a safe vehicle to race down a slightly less-than-a-mile-long track is paramount.
Those competing in the science car category — as opposed to the art car category, where vehicles are more decorative, like a parade float — can spend only $500 or less on their car.
In the beginning, Potter didn't even put a body on the car. But things have since progressed, and she has a team.
"It was just me building the cars in the beginning. Then Dad would come out for the final push. Then I started adding a team, by which I mean I got married," she laughs.
The two describe what it's like zipping down the mountain up to 40 mph, and the spirit of the Portland event. They're practically finishing one another's sentences.
"It's really exciting. I come in once a year, and I see many of the same people," Dan says, adding that it's sad to say goodbye. "It's such a Portland thing. I can't say it any better than that. I can't see this happening in Chicago, even if they had a Mount Tabor. There'd be too much paperwork."
And, he notes with a serious tone, it's a thrill.
"You know that you're going to go a little over seven-tenths of a mile in a handmade vehicle with your butt only a couple inches from the road," he says. "It doesn't sound that fast, but it is."
There's an element of fear that draws them in like a magnet.
"It's pure exhilaration," Potter says, telling a tale of a year that they cut 15 seconds off their time. They hit a part of the track that folks call the "learning curve" because it's a difficult bend in the track where people will essentially learn whether their car, or their skill, is good enough depending on if they wipe out.
"I was heading into that and I was driving; we were about to hit the learning curve," she says. "We were going so fast, I couldn't believe it. I said to Dad, 'I think we're going to die.' I said, 'I'm not going to brake,' and he said, 'That's my girl.'"
"Shared fear is a great bonding experience," Dan says, both laughing.
They've still never won, though — something they hope to change soon. But ultimately, the two say, it's more about the fun of it, tweaking the car each year to make it better — shaving off their time.
"It's just so much fun and you only get to do it once a year," Dan says. He compares it to making the perfect marmalade, when there are more opportunities to improve.
"I can make batches of marmalade. There's only one race day," he says.
And for Potter, it's the fun of diving back into her childhood skills.
"It's like taking a wagon wheel and making a vehicle together out of cobbled parts," she says. "I've got a soapbox and some wheels — let's roll."