The origins of the soapbox derby or billykart race are not well documented, or so we thought. Volvo's press release on its Extreme Gravity car puts the date at 1933, in Dayton Ohio, USA. The press release reads thus: there was a time when kids built racecars from orange crates and tiny metal roller skate wheels. Some were no more than a splintered 2-by-4 that was carried to the top of tallest hill in town then straddled by a freckled-faced child who craved speed. They would scream and laugh and race until their mothers called them home for meatloaf and apple pie. The year was 1933 and the town was Dayton, Ohio.
The idea came from none other than a newsman. Myron Scott, a photographer for the Dayton Daily News, had to jump and dodge his way across Dayton street when a group of boys sped past him in what may have been the first soapbox derby racecars. Mr. Scott saw something that day that, 71 years later, has grown into a global phenomenon.
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It was only a matter of time before big boys and girls became interested, boys and girls with Masters degrees and PhDs in mechanical engineering and aerodynamics took soapbox derby racing to the next level. Terms such as rolling resistance, down force, and small frontal area, became serious points of discussion in the pits and in the garages of homes around the world. The rudimentary guess work of soapbox derby racing evolved into the science of gravity racing. Super-skinny, solid rubber tires, lightweight materials and slender fuselage-shaped car bodies were designed to slip silently through the air.
But what happens if you take gravity racing to the extreme? What if the driver was an integral part of the car? What if the car morphed into something that looked more like a cross between a low-slung motorcycle and a bullet? The answer is Volvo's newest car, the Volvo Extreme Gravity Racer.
"I wanted the car to have a smaller frontal area, so it only made sense for the driver to lay in the prone position, so that he went down the hill head first," explains Doug Frasher, Strategic Design Chief of the Volvo Monitoring and Concept Center and designer of Volvo's Extreme Gravity Racer. "This layout allows the car to have an extremely small nose and will definitely let the driver really experience the sensation of speed. His nose rests only an inch or so above the front tire!"
The Volvo Extreme Gravity Car is constructed of water-jet-cut high-strength aluminum, carbon fiber composite and fiberglass. Race rules dictate that the driver weighs a maximum of 150 pounds while the car can't weigh more than 88 pounds. It must be no longer than 8 feet in length and no wider or taller than 36 inches. The Volvo Extreme Gravity Car weighs 35 pounds without ballast, is 7 feet 11.5 inches long, 20 inches wide and 20 inches high.
Frasher, the designer of two of Volvo's most daring vehicles in the company's 77-year history, first lent his hand to the 1999 S80. With its gentle curves and cab forward layout, the luxury sedan set an entirely new design philosophy into motion at the previously conservative Swedish manufacturer. Next came the 2003 XC90, an SUV that went on to be crowned the 2003 Motor Trend SUV of the Year and the 2003 North American Truck of the Year.
But Frasher isn't simply a designer. "Not many people know this, but before I joined Volvo I was a mechanical engineer," he explains. "And I spent most of my time in wind tunnels." So Volvo's Extreme Gravity Car isn't simply beautiful, it's also engineered to be a serious competitor. "What I've learned with this project is that rolling resistance and friction are the real enemies of speed. By placing the front and rear wheels in-line, it allows for a very narrow shape, which should translate to a faster run down the ramp. I hope that when race day comes around, we'll be out in front."
The race Frasher refers to is the 2004 Extreme Gravity Racing competition. This year marks the fourth time the race has run, but it's a first for Volvo. The race, founded by Don MacAllister of America Works for Kids, is a charitable event that raises money for foster children to help them become independent, working young men and women in the community. Additionally, through Gravity Series, Inc., foster children will gain valuable, paid work experience as they become involved in all aspects of the event.
"We are developing the most exciting extreme gravity racing series in the world and really appreciate the support of these professional car design teams," said MacAllister. "A portion of proceeds from the sale of each team's original design renderings, as well as racing merchandise will be donated to support inspirational training workshops for foster kids." The Volvo Extreme Gravity Racer will be up against some stiff competition. Last year, Porsche came out on top with Mazda a close second. Other design teams include cars from General Motors, Nissan and Bentley. "I hope having home court advantage in front of the Premiere Automotive Group headquarters will give us an edge," commented Frasher.