Photo Event: Soap Box Derby 2009 in San Diego

by Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen on May 27, 2009

San Diego, California. Gravity-powered cars raced through San Diego’s Sherman Heights neighborhood on Saturday, May 23rd in the annual running of the All-American Soap Box Derby. The quarter-mile-long course ran from the starter’s tent just north of J Street to the finish line a bit south of L Street. A crash zone extended a half-block farther approaching Imperial Avenue.


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Pre-Race Photo Ops

According to the derby’s press release, race day begins at 9 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m. Although the first cars didn’t leave the starting blocks until around 11 a.m., there is plenty of activity to photograph prior to the race. This is a good time to get close-ups of the cars, most of which are parked diagonally along the curb on the east side of 25th street near the top of the hill.

Some cars can be photographed still being assembled or under repair on the street near the starter’s tent. Look for nice human-interest photos of fathers and sons working together on their cars.

The cars run the gamut from plain and boxy stock models to the stylish and aerodynamic master’s models which cost upwards of $600 for an unfinished kit according to the Soap Box Derby website.

Drivers Meeting

About a half-hour before the first race, the drivers are called to a meeting under a large Soap Box Derby banner stretching across 25th Street. Get some photos of the group of kids – and parents – assembled under the billowing banner. A trumpet player performed the national anthem with a crowd-pleasing jazzy ending near an American flag held by two of the race officials. Work this scene for patriotic effect.

Group Photo

After the drivers meeting, all the kids are instructed to sit in their cars for a group photo. The event photographer will try to get a single wide-angle photo of all the kids in their cars parked along the curb. This is a challenge that takes a while to pull off as spectators are shooed out of the scene.

You’ll have plenty of time to photograph the more interesting kids with their cars. Use a long lens to avoid getting chased away for being in the shot. This is where it pays to have scoped out the empty cars earlier in the morning. You’ll probably want to concentrate on the cars with the cool paint jobs.

Rookies Meet the Crash Zone

The first cars down the course will be the rookies. These are kids who have never raced before and, on this day, one who had just moved up to the Masters class but who had never raced in that class before.

These four or five cars race individually and often end up racing past the finish line into the crash zone. The crash zone consists of two rows of large orange traffic safety cones lying on their sides. With their pointy ends facing up-course, they work by lodging themselves under the errant car and dragging the car to a halt. Beyond the cones, there are two rows of hay bales as a last resort.

Hay bales are also placed strategically along the course to cushion collisions with utility poles, the announcer’s tent, and other immovable objects.

On this day, the cones did their jobs. Despite numerous run-ins with the cones – and a couple with hay bales farther up the course – the emergency medical technician stationed at the end of the course had nothing to do other than to help reset the flattened cones.

The preliminaries ended with the only race of the day by adults. Two burly, mustachioed men – one of them the race announcer – in enlarged celebrity cars ran neck-and-neck, their brakes smoking as they stopped cleanly just short of the cones.

Photographing the Soap Box Derby

To get the best photos of the racers, you’ll need to move around. Fortunately, this isn’t too difficult since spectators at this event are scarce.

Between heats, you’ll be able to walk in the safety zone between the orange barriers and the curb on either side of the street. But, unless you like being yelled at over the PA system, I’d suggest being on the sidewalk when cars are on the course.

If you look official enough, you may be able to get away with positioning yourself in the middle of the course near the cones as did a local newspaper photojournalist. He had to dodge several cars that crashed around him. These cars weigh around 250 pounds and travel at speeds up to 30 MPH, so it’s a dangerous place to be.

I found a safer place with almost the same angle of view. Just south of the finish-line hay bales, there was a shade tent with some hay bales arranged as seats. No one was sitting there, so I set up camp.

Using a long lens – a 70-200mm although something longer like an 80-400mm would have been better – I was able to aim straight up the yellow center line all the way up the street to the starter’s tent.

After about a half-hour, I was chased off. Apparently, this spot isn’t safe either. A race official told me that one year a racer went all the way through the hay bales and down towards Imperial Avenue. I’m not sure what happened to him after that.

Different Angles

Next, I positioned myself to the side of the cones. I wanted to capture some crashes. Using the word crash might be overstating the situation a bit. By the time these kids hit the cones, they’ve already been hitting the brake for several hundred feet. So, the crash is a fairly slow-motion affair.

I did manage to get one photo of a car going through the second row of cones with small bits of debris flying. He was moving a bit faster than most. But even the low velocity impacts held photographic possibilities. The expressions on some of these kids’ faces were priceless.

You can also try standing next to the announcer’s tent. You can get some good action shots without so many of the orange barrier sticks in your photo.

View of the City

At certain places near the top of 25th Street, where you can see over or past the single-story homes that line the street, you’ll have a view of the not-so-distant city.

Face west on J Street and you can capture a side view of the racers as they speed past with the Hyatt Hotel towers in the background. Because they’re not yet up to top speed by this point, it’s pretty easy to capture the whole car in the frame. Place the camera on the pavement and you’ll get the car nearly filling the frame with nothing but sky and trees behind it.

Stand up and point your camera southwest to get the Coronado Bridge arcing over the racers and the house at the corner.

The Starter’s Tent

Spend some time at the starting area. Capture some of the kids being buttoned into their Master’s Class cars. They lie on their backs and view the road through a narrow slit between the car and the bottom of their helmet visor. A flash will help here since you’ll be working in the shade of the tent.

Get down low and get two cars coming slowly out of the starting blocks. When the race is in full swing, there will be two coming out of the blocks as two more wait in the blocks behind them. Then there are several more cars waiting in line behind them. Take some time between starts to photograph the preparation.

Parking and Other Logistics

For this event, 25th Street is closed to all traffic between Market Street and Imperial Avenue. All streets that intersect 25th between those points are also closed at 25th.

I arrived a few minutes before 9 a.m. There was still plenty of parking on the side streets. I opted for a space on Market at the top of the hill. Parking is free. There are no meters here.

Bring water. If you get hungry, there’s a liquor store at Market and 25th. Tacos Rico at 25th and Imperial makes a breakfast burrito that is delicioso. There were also a few ice cream vendors pushing their carts along the race route.

Entrance to the Soap Box Derby race is free. There is no seating provided, so you’ll sit on the curb when you feel like sitting unless you’re up to hauling around a chair and a camera bag.

Plan to arrive early and spend at least four hours there. Keep your eyes open and our feet moving. The photos won’t come easy, but they’re worth the effort.

Recommended Equipment

You won’t need a tripod. Bring a couple of camera bodies if you have them: you’ll be using wide-angle and telephoto lenses and it isn’t much fun to keep swapping them out on a single body. I, of course, ignored my own advice and ended up swapping out lenses a few times. Here’s what I used:

  • Nikon D300 Camera Body. As usual, I set it to Aperture Priority. The 6fps speed came in handy for the action shots and the ISO 100 (Nikon calls it Low 1.0) along with an aperture of f/22 allowed me to get a few good panning shots with motion blur.
  • Nikon 18-70mm lens. This is my go-to lens because of it’s light weight and decent performance.
  • Nikon 70-200mm VR Lens. My favorite lens. At f/2.8, it gives nice blurred backgrounds while keeping the subject sharp. A Nikon 80-400mm VR would have been a good choice too.
  • Tiffen Circular Polarizers. Regardless of which brand you use, bring a polarizer. Without it, the black asphalt street looked light gray. The colors on the cars really popped. You’ll need to remove it for some shots — such as when panning or when photographing in the shade of the starter’s tent — but when you need it, you really need it.
  • Nikon SB-800 Flash. I used the flash on-camera for fill in the harsh sunlight. The pop-up flash on the D300 isn’t powerful enough for this job.


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