YAMHILL — There’s nothing like sailing down the derby ramp in Yamhill’s Beulah Park, according to Michael Paolo, a four-time Derby Day champion.
You sit there, high off the ground in your derby car, waiting for an official to start the race. You’re a little nervous and a lot excited. The kid in the car next to you is excited too. Maybe you exchange a few words of encouragement, or maybe joke with each other a little, if you’re friends.
Then, suddenly, the board that holds the cars in place drops. You surge forward, faster and faster as you whoosh down the wooden ramp and onto the pavement. You keep your head done and hold the wheel steady. The crowd cheers and cheers and cheers as you cross the finish line.
“It’s a thrill,” he said.
Michael isn’t the only Yamhill-area resident who has fond memories of Yamhill Derby Days’ flagship competition.
The soap box derby has been the centerpiece of Derby Days since the annual festival started 60 years ago. Children 8 to 11 compete for prizes and bragging rights, just as their parents and grandparents, siblings and cousins did before them.
Families look forward to the derby races, and other activities that have become part of the festival, all year long. Race day itself is pretty important, Michael said.
Everything needs to be just right — especially the derby ramp and raceway.
But it wasn’t, he decided after taking a look earlier this year. “There were more bumps in lane number one than lane number two,” said Michael, who’ll start his freshman year at Yamhill-Carlton High School in the fall.
He’s too old to compete in derby car racing now. But when he was the right age, he won most of the heats in which he competed. He won the right to paint the words “Michael Paolo, Champion” on his white derby car, too.
Not only was lane one bumpier, but the entire paved area was fatigued. Moss was encroaching and cracks were spreading. And the gravel runout area, where cars roll to a stop after crossing the finish line, was looking shabby.
“It just wasn’t very perfect,” Michael said.
As luck would have it, Michael was in the process of becoming an Eagle Scout. He needed to earn three more merit badges, in rifle shooting, hiking and aviation. And he needed to complete a special Eagle project.
Fixing the derby track would fulfill the project requirement, he decided. It would take planning, organization and teamwork, and it would help the community. That meets the requirements.
“Ideally, you want the ramp to be nice and smooth, so you’ll keep your speed going,” Michael told Yamhill city councilors when he approached them with his project proposal.
The council thought it was a great idea. Councilors liked it so much, in fact, that they wanted it to be more extensive.
If Michael organized the derby track improvements, the city would chip in for additional paving material for the area next to the track, where the frog jumping contest takes place, and behind the restrooms.
Throughout the project, Michael coordinated with Yamhill Public Works Director Richard Howard.
“I threw out ideas for him and he’d approve them or not,” the teen said. “It was like teamwork with me and him.”
They had to tweak the plans a little when it turned out laying a drain pipe under the track wouldn’t work. But for the most part it ended up as Michael, Howard and the council had envisioned.
Michael started the project in March by going to the city council. Work in the park started in April, and he expected to be finished by June 1.
But in mid-May, he re-assessed the project and asked the city to extend the deadline to early July. Things would be wrapped up well before Derby Days, he promised.
The project had many parts that Michael had to organize. He filled what amounted to a general contractor role, he said.
First, he had to take the measurements of the area to be paved — the width, length and depth of paving required. Then he had to send those specifications to paving companies, seeking bids on the project.
Signature Paving was the successful bidder. But before it could come in, Michael and colleagues from Boy Scout Troop 268, based at the Yamhill Latter-day Saints Church, had a lot of work to do.
They had to break up the old, decrepit pavement and dispose of it. Then they had to prepare the area to be paved by leveling it and spreading and leveling gravel.
Several stumps marred the run-out area, and they had to be removed. Jim Phillips of Laughlin Logging volunteered his time and equipment for that.
“My dad helped arrange that,” Michael said. “He knew Jim Phillips, so he called him and asked him to help.”
Micheal’s parents, Murray and Karly Paolo, also helped by covering the cost of paving and striping. The city paid for the rest of the paving.
“Beulah Park is the city’s treasure,” Michael said. “It’s been here a long time, and Derby Day has been happening here for almost 60 years.”
Michael said the park, set amid a grove of oaks, is the perfect setting for the festival. The trees are a good backdrop for the talent show and karaoke singing Friday night.
After Saturday morning’s parade, they provide shade for numerous other Derby Days activities all afternoon and evening — bingo, music, frog jumping, tricycle racing and, of course, the derby racing. “That’s the best part,” Michael said.
Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.