The Merkel Hoopty

The Longhorn spirit can be found in the most unusual places. In this case, this spirit came to reside in an odd-shaped contraption named the Merkel Hoopty.

The first time I saw it I said, "That sonofabitch is gonna crash! It won't make it halfway down the hill."

Not that I'm a great predictor of the future or above spraying wd-40 on Wallenda shoes or anything: this was an visceral response to a vehicle made out of plywood and 2x4s that was taller than it was long, a three-wheeler with bicycle wheels, the front wheel with a sort of standard aggie misalignment directed by what looked to be a paint pole. This, I decided, wasn't created by people with a vision but those with a public death wish.

Quicker than you could shout SEC with a mouthful of grits, I was about to be proven utterly mistaken. There may have been madness behind the method, but, damn, the method was good and so was the vehicle.

Race on downhill with me on the jump...

Not only would the damn thing not crash, it would win some races...and quickly became a crowd favorite, if only for the 18" rooster up on top. The brain trust behind this vehicle was five brothers - the Merkel brothers: Paul, Larry, Tony, David and Kenneth - originally from Houston and now spread around Central Texas. Kenneth and Paul went to Texas State while Larry, Tony and David were Texas grads. Clad in burnt orange to match their vehicle, they brought the whole clan for Fathers Day.

They had a better vehicle planned, Paul related, but they ran out of time and had to build the Merkel Hoopty in three days. They tried it out on a comparably sized hill and didn't die right away. Then they drank a few more beers and didn't even crash. So far, so good.They painted the vehicle burnt orange, mounted a giant rooster up on top, added the name and various other statements, including a circle with a line through it over the words: Rule 10.

Hoopty is a modern colloquialism for a piece of shit car. Easy enough to understand. The brothers wanted a rooster on top with fire shooting out his ass but couldn't manage the fire detail...they said they'd return next year with fire shooting out on every run.

Rule 10 was another matter, something they had a problem with. When I asked Paul about that, he rolled his eyes and said, "Doesn't anyone read the rules?" What he was referring to were these rules. Rule 10 specifically says no drinking in the pit area and drivers should remain sober. The brothers were not so enthused about Rule 10. I explained about insurance and the Hotel-Motel tax money was being used, the local aggie control ordinance (no sheep allowed downtown after dark) and the peaceable nature of the event - but I had to admit to them I wrote the damn rule. Hell, I wrote most of the rules when this event was being formed over the last two years. Sure, they had been modified, with heated arguments here and there, a lot more spit than blood flying, but Rule 10 never changed.

To back track, this occurred Father's Day weekend at the Third Annual Adult Soapbox Derby held in downtown Marble Falls. Some 50 home-made vehicles and around 70 drivers raced down the Third Street Hill which has a drop of some 50 feet. Speeds get up to around 32 mph, so what may seem stable at slower speeds - particularly steering, suspension and tires as well as the balance of height to wheelbase ratios - can get very exciting in the last 100 feet of the race. Inertia is not always kind.

While many of the cars may look goofy at times -from canoes to tweety birds to rolling jailhouses, outhouses and lawn furniture - there is a core of serious competitors with well designed, highly competitive vehicles. There are two divisions: the Downhill, starting from an inclined ramp (for an fair start), and the Jamaican with a driver and pusher, who will jump into or on the back the vehicle; there are then three immediate pylons for the vehicle to slalom through before hitting the steepest part of the hill for the downhill finish, all definite Cool Runnings adaptations. Most enter the downhill - the Jamaican puts more pressure on the vehicle systems due to the weight of the extra person. There were just seven Jamaican entries this year.

The National Adult Soapbox Derby Association (NASDA), which is local with big ambitions, created this event. Shannon Heep, the creative, driving force of NASDA, was looking for a multi-day event to galvanize downtown, was fun for everyone and good for business. Last Friday night there was nearly 1,000 people downtown whooping it up for the racing, music, and libations (for non drivers, heh). Shannon and her loyal crew were happy but tired puppies with two more days of racing left - all day Saturday and the finals on Sunday afternoon. I was part of that crew the first two years but due to other obligations, I was merely a spectator this year.

With Paul and Kenneth driving, the Merkel Hoopty won several races before being vanquished to the losers bracket (both division races are double elimination). Paul won another race and Kenneth three more before falling to more experienced racers and better designed vehicles. They ran more than a few exhibitions to the crowd's delight. On Sunday the Merkels would win a NASDA Spirit Award for their efforts. Colleen Nelson, videographer and erstwhile reporter for the Longhorn Network, even interviewed them for Good Morning, Texas during Saturday's races.


Now if they can get that fire shooting out of the rooster's ass and straighten that goofy front wheel, next year should be even more fun when the Merkels return on Father's Day weekend.

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