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There was no racing in the 2009 Collingwood Street Trolley Derby due to the rain

Collingwood Street Cowboys

Despite the rumours to the contrary, popular demand ensured daredevil extreme trolley carting returns to Nelson this month

Story and photography by Tim Cuff
Wild Tomato: February 2009

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T: +64 3 546 3384

Shed lights have been burning bright into the early hours recently. Around the region and beyond, a dedicated band of pioneer-spirited amateur engineers tinkers with 21st century soapboxes.

Such is the diverse nature of the imaginations of these modern-day Burt Munros, you never really know what will come rolling down Nelson’s Collingwood Street at the end of February… fuelled only by gravity. A dubiously-titled triplane (The Mother Fokker) may taxi up to the start line for the first time, an orca whale may have recently perfected its squirt, or there may just be a La-Z-Boy with some skateboard wheels nailed on.

Last winter, it was announced that the 2009 Trolley Derby was off – postponed to allow for a revamp. But the organisers hadn’t reckoned on the depth of feeling amongst the racers and fans. As the tom-toms drummed, men clad in oily overalls emerged from workshops to heed the call. A new sponsor was found – South Canterbury Finance replacing the Fresh Choice supermarket – and new prizes created to broaden the event. The race was back on.

Soapbox derbies have been held in the US since the 1930s, and are characterised by the use of gravity alone to power the trolleys. Black-and-white pictures show that cart racing in the Nelson area was thriving back in the 1960s and 1970s. Those early racers could only dream of the hi-tech materials used these days: carbon fibre, lycra, lightweight alloys…

Of course, striving to build the perfect machine will always have its cost, as Richmond’s Bruce Stilwell found out whilst welding the frame in his garage in the early hours last year. With the family tucked up in bed, Bruce, a 40-year-old kitchen installer, excitedly squeezed into the cockpit.

“I thought I’d try it out and climbed inside, but found I couldn’t get out again. I called out to my partner but she was fast asleep, so I had to drag myself across the garage floor to the angle grinder and cut myself out. I’m clearly a little bit bigger than I’d pictured. I was in there for about 20 minutes, I suppose. It must have looked bloody funny.”

After an admirable debut – seventh in the Monarch of the Hill race – he’s adapting his trolley for the 2009 season. “It’s changed into an orca whale this year. Last year it was called the Black Bullet but people called it the Black Coffin – the trolley of death. I clocked 61kph after readjusting a brake pad that was rubbing on a tyre, which had me trailing a stream of black smoke on the first run.”

With admirable understatement he continues, “I’m still taking the racing seriously but this time I’m putting a fire extinguisher in as a blow-hole. I just want to be able to squirt the crowd on the way down, you know?”

Tim Cuff, Wild Tomato The Rockets
Such ambition is typical of the breed of men, women, boys and girls willing to put themselves on the line and roll down a steep hill.

Last year’s race day saw around 75 entries in the six different classes. Style Meister is for all competitors, and rewards originality and creativity. Children are age-grouped in the Nippers (for under 6s), Zoomers and Sprinters. Adults race in the Rockets class, and can also enter the Monarch of the Hill races – the only class in which up to two pushers are allowed to start each trolley.

The Monarch races are all about speed. Competitors start two at a time and are clocked by the local police as the hill levels out at Bronte Street – the fastest point on the course.

All other races start with six carts lined across the street. They are simply released and gravity is allowed to do its thing. Light trolleys roll from the start line quickly but will lose out to heavier ones that build speed better. Bulkier drivers also have an advantage as the rules state that machines are limited to a maximum weight of 40kg (although some entrants, clearly not willing to eat their way to victory, wore divers’ weights last year). Let’s meet some of the key players in this year’s forthcoming derby…

The Stalwart

Tim Cuff, Wild Tomato The Stalwart
Tim Bayley, a 57-year-old Nelson hotelier and wine-cellar constructor, was hooked from his first sight of the race in 2002. Dismayed at the possible loss of this year’s race, he rallied a number of other competitors to push for the event’s reinstatement into the Nelson Summer Festival.

A letter to the local paper resulted in South Canterbury Finance coming forward with the much-needed sponsorship, in turn enabling the company to raise funds for the child cancer charity it supports on a regular basis.

“I’ve always been into speed,” says Tim, who once raced 5,500 miles in a 1939 MGTB from Ottawa to Mexico. “I went along to the first Trolley Derby and thought ‘that looks like fun’. So the next year, I thought I’d better build something for that. Where I grew up in Christchurch, it was as flat as a pancake so the trolleys were either pulled by the farm horse or wind powered.”

With his engineering background and warm sense of humour, he was perfectly qualified to become one of the race’s regular faces – winning Monarch of the Hill in 2007 and defeating his arch-rival Greg Shaw.

“That year, the Air Force was there and a couple of their strapping lads pushed me. As for Greg, he’s evil – he’s a mean man,” jokes Tim, with an even bigger twinkle in his eye than normal. In 2008, Greg stole the Monarch crown from Tim in his menacing, shark-toothed Everyman Records trolley, being clocked at 69kph.

And in last year’s Rockets race, Lincoln MacKenzie pipped both them and trolley designer Sam Laidlaw in a thrilling race, with all four crossing the finish line within a second of each other. The top three places were all taken by Sam’s creations.

“There’s always a lot of excitement at the top of the hill and a lot of anticipation – depending on how new your machine is,” says Tim. “You’re lined up six in a row, and the sun’s beating down and it’s hot. There’s always a bit of niggling and eyeballing from competitors. You’re only six inches away from each other, so when they go you have to keep your line and hold it. If you’re fast, you can pick your line after that… as long as you’re not cutting someone off.”

“There are definitely better parts of the course to take. There’s a ‘racing line’ – the left side is the best, I’ve found. The middle’s a bit rough because of a few manholes, and where the crossing’s taken out can give you a bit of a bounce. Then it’s a case of holding your nerve, not touching the brakes and keeping her straight as she goes. You barrel across the finish line and hope no one runs into the back of you.”

RedRak Racer looks solid enough but is in fact a well-crafted mix of recumbent trike base, redwood strip-body frame and a lycra skin. An epoxy coating gives the shell rigidity but no structural strength, so Tim’s spectacular crash in 2007 could have resulted in more than just dented pride.

The Style Meisters

Tim Cuff, Wild Tomato The Style Meisters
Sharon Smith was not terribly pleased with hubby Brian when he crashed their Bugatti. “He bought me a box of chocolates, but they had gluten in them so I couldn’t eat them.”

Winners of the Style Meister award for each of the four years the WOW trophy’s been presented, Christchurch café owners Sharon, 49, and “nearly-60” Brian Smith are not in the Trolley Derby for the speed (although their replica 1925 Bugatti has touched 60kph).

“We’ve got three vehicles and Brian’s just finishing a fourth one for this year. There’s the Bugatti, an Auto Union C-Type, an Auto Union Avis Record Wagen and I’m not allowed to tell you about the new one… although it’s a side-by-side two-seater.”

Sharon could be described as reluctantly enthusiastic. She’s not involved because she loves speed or the smell of leather and oil – evidently, she’s a loyal and loving wife.

“When Brian was making the second car, I was selling a business. There I was trying to get all the accounts together and he’s measuring my bum to make sure it’d fit into whatever he was building. Then he decided he’d drive that one and I’d drive the Bugatti… and that’s how I became the Bugatti Queen. This was not my idea. I did not volunteer or do anything. This is all part of the marriage thing.”

It didn’t take long for trolley racing to get under her skin, however. “It’s a bit of a buzz. When you’re an inch off the ground, it actually feels like you’re going really fast. When I had my first run down the hill I thought, ‘Wow this is fun!’ You do get hooked on it.”

Long-suffering Sharon describes the long-winded construction process. “The Bugatti started life as a hunk of ply on the lounge floor. Brian just sat on it and drew around himself. He then built a steel frame and formed aluminium over the top. He just bends things round and fiddles and curses. He’s one of those pedantic, fiddly sorts of people. He loves detail.” The radiator badge is a blown up, printed photo. The gauges are made from silver tea strainers from The Warehouse.

The second Auto Union was carved from a block of polystyrene. “Lyttelton was covered in polystyrene… and I’m still getting polystyrene out of our garden.” Even when talking on the phone you can sense Sharon rolling her eyes. But she does enjoy the fun side of racing, and the trips to Nelson have become real family outings. “We came up last year and had a team of 10, including our twin grandsons. We did everyone up in team T-shirts and caps, and we had a ball.”

To complement their beautifully-crafted vehicles, the pair dresses the part too: leather aviator’s hats, goggles and a waxed moustache for Brian. “He’s fair-haired, but in one race he wore this big black moustache that flew off going down the hill. Some kid came running up with it afterwards. I suppose my husband’s just like a small boy – he hasn’t grown up yet… a bit like Peter Pan.”

The Boy Racers

Tim Cuff, Wild Tomato The Boy Racers
Jared Dacombe, 10, and his seven-year-old brother, Morgan, are two very cool kids. Champions of their age groups, they come from a dynasty of “trolleyers”, with a still-racing grandfather in Gordon Dacombe (who built their winning vehicles) and big sister Alana who, in 2006 at the age of 13, won the Sprinters class.

Mum of four, Michelle, is proud of her carting children. “It’s really cool. My elder daughter Alana was the first female to ever win at the Trolley Derby, so she sort of set the bar. And the boys… they’re excited all year. They’re thinking about it all the time. Jared made the comment that he only lives for one day a year, and that’s the day of the Trolley Derby.”

In Morgan’s first year, at the tender age of five, he crashed. “This guy had a really wide trolley wheel, and he banged into me and made me flip over. I was going about 30kph.” Did Morgan hurt himself? He shrugs, “Nah. But I got a free hat.”

Michelle remembers the moment a little more keenly. “I couldn’t get down the road fast enough when Morgan crashed. It was quite scary. He was fine though, just a bit knocked and his confidence wasn’t there afterwards. He had his brakes on for most of the next race. Still, my philosophy is to live life to the max… and that involves getting hurt occasionally.”

But the Dacombes have a secret to their success. “My nine-year-old daughter, Jasmine, has always been the hidden passenger in JJ Racer. There are two seats in there! She should get some credit, but it’s Jared that gets the medal.”

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There was no racing in the 2009 Collingwood Street Trolley Derby due to the rain