Pontiac revs up for Phoenix Derby Races

Among the creative and energetic minds in Pontiac, inspiration can spring from the everyday.

When folks from Main Street Pontiac recognized the natural slopes on some downtown Pontiac streets, they sparked an idea for a fun community event that takes advantage of the forces of gravity. What if Main Street Pontiac sponsored a race down one of those hills and invited the creative talent of high school students and local businesses?

The idea went from zero to 60 very quickly.

On August 25, Main Street Pontiac will host its first ever Phoenix Derby Races, an old-fashioned event designed to spark friendly competition while offering the chance for kids to put some design and STEAM skills to work to build and race a wooden, non-motorized car.

The event, open to Pontiac resident high school students, will encourage kids to form a team, work with mentors to build wooden gravity-powered cars, and race the cars down a select Pontiac street which will be closed to traffic, all in one day. There will also be a bracket-oriented competition for adults who want to join in the fun.

“This originated as a fun idea for racing a car, soapbox derby-style, down a city slope,” says Daniela Walters, president of Main Street Pontiac. “We turned it into a placemaking event for the community.”

During their brainstorming sessions, Walters met with friends and fellow Pontiac supporters Marijayne Renny and Joe Kalle to hammer out details. They bounced around ideas for different types of sponsorships, worked through logistics, and talked about having a “Best Derby Hat” contest to encourage attendees and supporters to dress the part.

They also selected a standard car kit to supply to each team to kick off the event. “Folks will need to be comfortable using tools,” says Kalle. “But the kit will be easier to put together than anything I have assembled from IKEA.”

To test ease of build, Walters corralled a group of law clerks, interns, and attorneys from Dobrusin Law in Pontiac, where she is a patent attorney, to build their selected kit. Ideally, engineer and design professionals from Pontiac businesses will sponsor and mentor teams to help the kids create, refine, and decorate their vehicles.

Several businesses and nonprofits have committed their support already, including Main Street Pontiac, Dobrusin Law, DASI Solutions, General Motors Global Propulsion Systems, LocalHop, LBI Limited, Alley Cat Café, the City of Pontiac, and McLaren Hospital. Event organizers are seeking additional sponsorship.

A goal of the event is to build scholarships for rising seniors who enter the race.

“We wanted to create a scholarship opportunity, hopefully up to three to five scholarship to any post secondary education, including trade school, two- or four-year college. It’s not based on winning the race, it’s based on an essay,” says Walters.

The event is free for kids to enter and participate, and is designed to be a fun, team-oriented event for students, mentors, and sponsors.

“Our goal is to promote STEAM careers, to spark an interest in building and designing, and to help kids learn how to communicate as a team and with mentors,” says Walters.

Find more information about the Phoenix Derby Races here and here.

Read more articles by Claire Charlton.

Fascination drives Claire Charlton to write features and profiles. Always interested in people and their stories, Claire is dedicated to the art of interviewing. A freelancer for a dozen years, Claire writes about health, fitness, business and fun. When she’s not writing, drinking coffee or hanging with her family, Claire runs endurance events, practices yoga, and volunteers with lots of nonprofits.