5 Wacky San Francisco Races to Rival SFMOMA's Soapbox Derby

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A referee in a black and white shirt splashes an adult competitor in a tricycle race with a bucket of water.
A competitor in Thee Parkside's annual tricycle races gets doused with a bucket of water, mid-ride. (Instagram/@theeparkside)

As you may have noticed, San Francisco is gearing up hard for this Sunday's SFMOMA Soapbox Derby at McLaren Park. The wacky race—announced live by KQED Arts' own Pendarvis Harshaw—was inspired by a similar 1975 event in which artists hurled themselves down a hill in vehicles of their own making. (The materials back then included everything from bread to vibrators.)

Let's not forget, however, that beyond the SFMOMA event, Bay Area residents have a long and rich history of participating in foolish races on wheels—usually for nothing more than the glory of it.

Here are five of the best.

The Illegal Soapbox Society's Bernal Hill Races

Back before the internet existed, unusual humans who wanted to connect and bond with other unusual humans were forced to regularly leave their homes and endanger themselves physically. San Francisco's Illegal Soapbox Society formed in 1992 to facilitate this, holding races down Bernal Hill every third Sunday between the months of May and October.

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The competing soapboxes were officially divided into three categories: cars with hard wheels, cars with tires and "customized kiddie carts." But one 1997 SFGate article also reported the participation of "a lowrider Safeway shopping cart that throws flames, smoke and water; a wooden pallet on wheels; a lawn chair; a two-man bobsled called Amphetamine Reptile; and a one-man chopped skateboard that functions as a luge."

Though initially inspired by the 1975 SFMOMA Soapbox Derby, the Bernal offshoot took on a life of its own, with a distinctly '90s flavor—even appearing in a 1994 episode of The Real World. "This is mostly the bike messenger crowd," SFGate observed, "drinking beer from cans in bags, enticed by the opportunity to see contact between skin and asphalt." Fittingly, the legacy of the races lives on today at the Mission District bar Zeitgeist, which still has souvenir posters from the races on display.

The Mint's Memorial Day Tricycle Race

The year was 1972, the starting point was the Mint on Market Street, and the competition was fierce. It was the first annual Memorial Day Tricycle Race—an event that would ultimately run for over two decades. The colorful and chaotic fundraiser involved scores of two-person teams—sometimes in costume, sometimes in drag, sometimes in almost nothing at all—racing between bars all over the city. One person sat on the tricycle while the other pushed, and wherever the duos landed en route, they got free drinks.

The race was thought up by Mint employee Les Balmain and Mint owner Charlotte Coleman, who owned a wealth of legendary gay bars in the city, including Twin Peaks. In its 21 years, the Memorial Day Tricycle Race raised thousands of dollars for both AIDS- and guide dog-related charities. Media coverage of the tricycle race peaked in 1976 when Jimmy Carter's 26-year-old son Chip took part, and repeatedly asked onlookers to "vote for daddy." Carter is reported to have continued even after his handlebars fell off.

The Rambler Cup Relay Race

Illustrations that accompanied the San Francisco Examiner's report about 1894's Rambler Relay race that traveled from San Francisco to Oakland via San Jose. (SF Examiner)

On Apr. 9, 1894, the San Francisco Examiner provided an exhaustive summary about this then-popular relay bicycle race that ran from San Francisco to Oakland via San Jose. Seven local bicycle clubs took part in the 100-mile course, starting out from Ninth and Market. "There was a strong armed man behind every racer," the paper reported, "and when [the] whistle blew, those brawny gentlemen shoved and the seven men shot down Market Street like seven skyrockets."

The race lasted five hours and 22 minutes, causing disruption, excitement and a plethora of injury along the way. The Examiner described racers colliding with two dogs, a cow and a human bystander, and made it abundantly clear that nobody in this race had any regard for anything else going on around them. "What made Magill so late at the end of the sixth relay was his attempt to ride under the legs of a moving horse," it noted at one point. "Magill went down, rubbed his skinned knees and rode off with the loss of some minutes and some cuticle."

"All of Oakland" came out to see the Garden City Club cross the finish line first.

The Pop's/Parkside Independence Day Tricycle Race

There were a combination of factors that swiftly made Pop's one of the Mission District's greatest dives after it first opened in 2003.  Strong drinks, hedonistic patrons, an abnormally flattering photo booth and, yes, the annual Fourth of July tricycle races. Just grown humans, most of them drunk, riding children's tricycles, trying to weave around tiny orange cones on the York Street side of the bar. Looking on—loudly—were the Pop's patrons who were either too long-limbed, too drunk or too sensible to participate, who instead spilled out of the bar to holler from the sidelines.

After Malia Spanyol sold Pop's in 2014, the tricycle races moved to her other venue, Thee Parkside, and added another component: ladies' arm wrestling.

Bring Your Own Big Wheel Race

It all started calmly enough. In 2000, a man named John Brumit decided to ride a children's big wheel toy down the Lombard St. wiggle because: San Francisco. After Brumit drew a small crowd, he decided to perform the hilarious stunt every year. This, of course, grew into a full-blown race in 2007 because—again—San Francisco.

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The anarchy that ensued that year was enough to get the calamitous competition moved in 2008, to the real crookedest street in San Francisco—the Vermont Street wiggle near 20th Street in Potrero Hill. That's where the race happens annually to this day—including Sunday, Apr. 17 beginning at 2pm. To register and check the rules (no rubber wheels!), visit BringYourOwnWheel.com.