A little rain on Saturday only added to the other-worldliness of an eccentric, chaotic, topsy-turvy event that happens every year in a secluded Raleigh neighborhood – the Kirby Derby.
Organized and hosted entirely by residents of Kirby Street in the quiet Pullen Park neighborhood, the annual event includes a pine car race for children, a soapbox derby race for adults, a parade featuring handmade floats and a drag race.
This year’s derby, the 12th, adopted an “Alice in Wonderland” theme. Dozens of attendees dressed up as Alice, the Queen of Hearts and Mad Hatters, and racers varied from a 15-foot-long caterpillar made from a dozen wheels and a plastic dog tunnel to wooden tables welded on garden-cart wheels with tea party sets secured on top.
Chris Dellanno has lived in various houses on Kirby Street for the past 20 years and worked as the announcer during the derby. He said the character of the neighborhood and the creativity of the project are what have kept the derby going.
“It gives people a creative outlet,” he said. “People who normally have real jobs and deal with numbers and clients and deadlines can let loose and make a costume or make a racer and just come and have a fun afternoon. The hard part is keeping it from getting too big. We encourage other neighborhoods to do similar things. Just get together with your neighbors in the street and have a day.”
Aly and Beth Khalifa founded the Kirby Derby in 2001, originally as a parade. Aly Khalifa had been unanimously elected neighborhood president, and he said he would only accept the post if the neighborhood put on a parade.
“It started off as an act of defiance, it was really tongue and cheek. But the neighborhood loved the idea and ran with it,” said Khalifa, who drove a racer constructed to look like a yellow tea pot.
As the neighborhood added races and events to the Kirby Derby, the intricacy of the floats and the number of attendees grew.
“At first people were literally using city trash cans and riding on them as soap cars, and now it is almost professional,” Beth Khalifa said.
‘I’m the pit boss’
Barrett Jenkins has lived on Kirby Street for four years but this is his first year participating in the derby race. He and friend Les Parker built and designed the car to look like the Mock Turtle, the melancholy character in “Alice in Wonderland” from which mock turtle soup is made.
“I’m like the pit crew, he’s the driver. I’m more of the brains behind the operation; I’m the pit boss,” said Parker.
Will Hooker and his daughter, Suzy, were still building their racer Friday afternoon. They said they had been working on it for 10 days.
“It is typically an all-night construction party the night before,” said Will Hooker, who has lived on Kirby Street since 1994. “But there are rules. You have to be 16 before you can drive. The racer must have brakes and at least three wheels.”
Steve Duncan, a resident of Kirby Street since 1989, organizes the safety crew for the event and normally works as race umpire. But he participated as a racer for the first time Saturday.
He attributes the Kirby Derby’s longevity to the intimacy of the neighborhood.
“The interesting part is, without exception, almost everybody participates, which I think is the defining characteristic. This is a neighborhood where participation is close to 100 percent and how many times does that happen when everyone is on the same page?”