Dad -- Get Down The Hill

I fell in love with a car. 

My love affair with automobiles began even earlier with my entry in the Soap Box Derby event in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1949. I was 13, and the derby was my first chance to create and drive a real car. My derby entry fee was twenty dollars, paid by my corporate sponsor, whose name would appear on the finished car as I raced down the hill. Sponsors also provided each participant with official Soap Box Derby wheels and axles.

We were responsible for our cars' entire design and construction, with no assistance other than advice from anyone else. Our cars had to meet dimension and weight requirements as well as essential safety qualifications for steering and braking systems. In addition, each car had to pass several technical inspections and trial runs to qualify for the race.

My first task was designing the car. Weeks passed as I filled sheets of drawings with concepts for critical steering and braking systems, overall views, and other details. Finally, I was ready to begin construction with the completed car firmly established in my imagination and accurately detailed in my complete engineering drawings.

I had access to a fully-equipped woodworking shop within easy bicycling distance from home. Hand and power tools were available, along with a supply of materials. I was elated at having everything I could possibly need. All went well at first as I finished the bare chassis. However, when I began building the complex steering mechanism, I discovered a problem I hadn't anticipated; creating the car I had designed was more challenging than I thought. Having a complete complement of tools and perfect working conditions only emphasized the missing ingredient: my lack of experience. 

The deadline for completing the car in time for the first technical inspection loomed in the not-too-distant future. Discouragement was setting in. Working harder and putting in more hours didn't help. I was starting to get worried.

Dad realized things had become difficult for me, with frustration replacing my earlier enjoyment and success. "I see that you're having some problems building the car." he began gently, "I don't know what might be causing this, but maybe we could talk about it."

And talk we did. I reviewed the engineering drawings in detail, pointing out how beautifully everything worked together to create the ideal car. I showed him how each component contributed to winning the race. And I admitted that even with all the tools and equipment I needed, I was having trouble building the car I had designed.

"It might be helpful," he began, "to look at your obligations and your contract with your sponsor. So here's what I think you have agreed to do:

     Build a soapbox racer that meets the rules, passes the technical inspections, and qualifies for the race.

     Meet all deadlines, including having the sponsor's name painted on the car when the race begins.

     Get down the hill."

As Dad and I continued talking about my goals and obligations. I had not promised my sponsor that my car would be the best engineered, best looking, or the fastest entry in the race. These results would be ideal, but they were my goals; they were not part of my contract. My actual commitments were straightforward: Build a qualifying car. Show up on time. Get down the hill.

With these well-defined and reasonable goals in mind, I returned to my engineering drawings with a new perspective.

I could meet all three by modifying my ambitious designs, making the task of completing my car well within my capabilities. Gone was the nagging feeling that my car would not measure up to my ideals. Instead, keeping my word and meeting my commitments was straightforward -- and satisfying.

My redesigned steering and braking systems were easier to construct, perfectly safe, and more than adequate for technical inspections. I abandon my previous goal of creating the best-looking car in the race. Instead of the beautifully sculptured outer body shell I had planned, I opted for a more straightforward design, using a curved wood frame covered with single-ply cardboard. With my completed car painted in British Racing Green and my sponsor, The Royal Sandwich Company, proudly gracing both sides, I was ready for all challengers.

Winning the 1950 Tallahhasse Soap Box Derby was exciting enough at 14, but the event's aftermath was the real win. Not that I don't get into situations today where I wind up overpromised and under-capable. I often seek projects and am at the very edge of reasonableness. But now, I'm much more aware of the differences between my goals and my commitments.

I learned how to GetDown The Hill.

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