The Story of the Derby

Once upon a time in upstate New York sat a magical village nestled between a rambling river and majestic mountains.   For two centuries this little hamlet had welcomed people from all over the world, allowed them to cooperate for mutual benefit, and grew into a capital place to live, work and play.   But one day without warning, the biggest factory in this now-prosperous little city, The Big Blue Bean Company, packed up and left in favor of finding more bean counters elsewhere.   The little city suddenly felt the pinch, with citizens moving away and once-bustling businesses closing their doors.

Several years later, a couple of bright and talented people, with an eye for beauty and history, re-discovered a riverside neighborhood that was nearly bursting with potential for a movement of renewal;  boasting empty storefronts with grand entrances, life-size windows that yearned for light and color, and the feel of what might become a new artistic and social community.   These forward-thinking folks took a plunge into their waterfront wonderland and over time began to lure in a current of other artists, restaurants, museums and cafes.   The neighborhood, historically known as the Rondout, slowly but surely gained new life, attracting a subtle wave of like-minded adventurers, and once again the docks and sidewalks felt the pulse of friendly feet.

But something was still missing.   Our heroes looked around and asked, how could they really jump-start their new surroundings?   With a festival, of course!   An event to celebrate their vision, hard work and good fortune, to include and encourage those who had joined their journey.   What did they have to work with?   Creativity, a big hill, some hand tools….and gravity!    Where else did this brainstorm lead, but to the idea of a race.   Not just a race, but a unique contest combining color, whimsy, a little bit of engineering, and FUN!   It wasn’t to be a traditional contest – motorized entries were prohibited —  but a collective competition where being first or fastest wasn’t top priority.   So in 1995, over margaritas and blue corn tortillas, the Kingston Artist Soapbox Derby was born.

With the blessing of a visionary Mayor willing to take chances, an inaugural committee, a lot of legwork and the generosity of many, the Derby quickly grew from a handful of entries and several hundred spectators to three dozen vehicles in a range of categories and thousands of “race fans” who made a day of the event;  enjoying not only the fanciful vehicles but the natural beauty of the neighborhood, where the Rondout Creek (which flows many miles all the way from Sullivan) flows into the mighty Hudson River, and lined with the energy of dining, cultural, nautical and other attractions.

The Kingston Artist Soapbox Derby is a truly unique family-friendly event that highlights the arts by drawing participants and spectators from far and wide.  Beyond the day of the event, the Derby sponsors workshops for entrants who need some extra help, and encourages local community organizations to join in the fun and build a soapbox car as a team.  The event supports the local economy by bringing many new and returning faces to Kingston, giving businesses and organizations the opportunity to support the neighborhood while promoting their brands in unique and memorable ways.

Early in the day participants park their creations along lower Broadway and make final preparations, while thousands of spectators anticipate watching each car roll down the hill, one-by-one.  Vendors and live performances add to a day of fun that concludes with a wacky and entertaining awards ceremony in Gallo Park, where participants receive prizes and unique artist-designed trophies. Post-parade, spectators and competitors have the opportunity for last looks at their favorite Derby cars, lined up rally-style on the historic West Strand.

This year the Kingston Artist Soapbox Derby turns 21, and like the many racers who have traversed lower Broadway, there have been twists and turns.   As the neighborhood goes from renewal to renaissance, with a steady flow of new residents and businesses, the Derby approaches its platinum anniversary year with a re-boot of prize categories, sponsors, new fans and local supporters.   And as before, the Kingston Artist Soapbox Derby eschews the term “race” – there’s still no need for speed – but affirms its identity as a moveable feast of ingenuity, or as the founders envisioned it, “a parade of kinetic sculpture.”

And what of our intrepid founders?   Well 21 years later, Nancy and Yourij Donskoj, artists, impresarios and Rondout gallery owners, are happy to hand the wheel over to new friends and neighbors, allowing their hybrid talent to adapt and pump fresh energy into the Derby with a modern display of cooperative innovation.  By highlighting the Rondout neighborhood’s natural attractions, its cultural and historical gems, dining meccas and the overall flow of a bustling neighborhood, the Derby brings it all together.  For the official “racers,” curious spectators, boaters, residents, tourists, and everyone who enjoys fun, The Kingston Artist Soapbox Derby defines creative expression from a community that lives to celebrate its vibrant local efforts.