San Francisco and the Illegal Soapbox Society

For every period in time, there’s a piece that you’ll have nostalgia for because it reminds you of some fun times in your life. For me, I look back on the ’90s with memories of flowing flannel, high school shenanigans, and even a chance of scenery from the west coast to the east coast. Back on the west coast though, there was a scene unfolding that took hold of the hills above the Bay Area. Through a large chunk of the ’90s, the San Francisco Illegal Soapbox Society gathered to run reckless on the road. It happened on every third Sunday, and here’s what it looked like.

Reader Batshitbox shared the above video in a comment on another post. I was immediately intrigued as the music, clothes, style, and sense of anti-establishment adventure comes pouring out the minute you hit play. So I asked Batshitbox to explain a bit more about the scene. He emailed the following:

Hiya, Jeff! Standby for rambling Grampa Simpson monologue…

Jeez, the soapbox races. They seemed to take place in a time that’s not well documented on the internet. The mid-late ’90s were the age of the personal website and they all got abandoned, their data fragged. Nobody wanted to digitize hours of tape and upload it. (Look, it took the uploader of this video until 2018 to get ’round to it!)

The SFISS (San Francisco Illegal Soapbox Society) seemed to be an outgrowth of the rockabilly/garage band scene, as well as the bike messenger and skateboarder scene, which had a lot of crossover. I was a scooter messenger who dated a hairdresser who was part of the rockabilly scene, and her ex-boyfriend was none other than the guy who made that film. Everybody knew or recognized everybody from somewhere. The Jaxx (seen on one of the cars) are a skateboarding crew. Lucky 13 is a bar.

Races took place every third Sunday from April Fools Day (I think) until Halloween. This schedule was confusing enough to keep things from getting too popular. Race, skip two weeks, race. There was always a big blowout rock’n’roll show featuring The Demonics just before the Halloween race. The last race itself would draw a couple hundred spectators. A lot of people still have the awesome posters made by Courtney Callahan at Lucky Mule Printing.

I bet if you can get ahold of Courtney (drummer for the Demonics) or anyone at Lucky Mule they’ll have more to add about the races.

Races were held on “The Bernal Heights Speedway” which is Bernal Heights Park, as most of the upper portion of the roadway is closed to traffic.,-122.410963,15.5z

Only a few daredevils would start at the very top, as there was a gate between the sections and you had to go off-road, then catch a little air to land where the usual races start. The last part of that film is going down Folsom between Bernal Heights Park and Precita Park, then turning the wrong way down Precita Street. You can’t tell how steep Folsom is, but it hurts to walk up.

Car technology was all over the map. Everything went down the hill at once, but racers with hard wheels would only be competing against other hard wheelers, and pneumatic (wheelbarrow) tire cars against each other. No official scores or classes, of course, just betting beers. Starting was usually done with a pusher, I never saw that LeMans start until this film came up. A lot of pushers face planted, but usually they didn’t spill their beer.

One car was a Safeway shopping cart and couldn’t be beat. Pneumatic tires, an air horn, a fire extinguisher smokescreen. I think I can get you in contact with that guy, not many racers left in SF. He later raced some early 24 Hours of LeMons races, and builds fantastic bicycle/sculptures.

Couches went down the hill. Cars with beer kegs for wheels. Shipping pallets. One totally hot mama would roller skate backwards the whole way down. Some took luge boards down when they were popular. Guys would wheelie beach cruisers all the way down and then all the way back up again. Brakes were not universally adopted, speed was scrubbed off on the long straightaway at the bottom, or by running up an embankment.

This was all at a time when I had to explain to San Franciscans what Burning Man was. This was what creative low-lifes did back then. I left SF in 1999 and I guess the races tapered off to just being every Halloween. When I moved back in 2008 the races were shut down by the Parks dept, who considered them an “Organized Event” because they read about them on the Internet. (Fucking internet.) Up until then we had convinced them all these people just randomly showed up every third Sunday, so no permits were needed.

Over time Soap Box racing merged with “Bring Your Own Big Wheel”, an annual Easter Day race down the real crookedest-street-in-the-world, Vermont Street between 20th & 22nd Streets

It seems the races are still going on. The Demonics are still involved or were up until a few years ago. I found more great posters that reference this:

The San Francisco Illegal Soapbox Society is a perfect encapsulation for the feeling of entertaining angst that dominated the ’90s. These were smart creative people blowing off steam in a pretty awesome way. Enjoying the fruits of their mechanical labor, be it simple or complex. It sounds a lot like the 24 Hours of LeMons today, in fact, so it’s no surprise that Batshitbox mentions a racer running some of the early LeMons races.

If you want to step back in time for a bit, watch the video. Every bit of it feels properly dated. There’s no need for the fish-eye lens. The music could be used to score the opening of a Tarantino film. And everyone in the video is who you’d expect to find in the 1990s-era San Francisco.

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9 responses to “San Francisco and the Illegal Soapbox Society”

  1. Batshitbox Avatar

    I may not miss the ’90s too much but I do miss the SFISS. There’s other things that have come up over the decades here in SF, but they tend to be annual events (which the SFISS sort of devolved to also.) Local music venue Thee Parkside has an annual “Tricycle Race and Ladies’ Arm Wrestling” on the 4th of July, and there’s the Big Wheel race on Easter.

    While I was living in Boston in the 2000s I needed something to take the place of SFISS and ended up joining S.C.U.L., the Subversive Choppers Urban Legion. They ride unfeasible chopped bicycles made by a dangerous collection of high-end bicycle factory workers and M.I.T. students. Their mission is to be so stupid looking in public that no one will be afraid to ride their bicycle for fear of looking stupid. Every Saturday night April through October.

    1. 0A5599 Avatar

      Cool stuff. Did you do ever do any Motorized Wheelbarrow Society events?

      1. Batshitbox Avatar

        That’s one I hadn’t heard of. Though I’m reminded of my old boss who built a land sailer, took it out in a huge parking lot and reported back, “If, before I built this thing, you told me you could get a wheelbarrow tire to smoke I’d have thought you were nuts.”

  2. longrooffan Avatar

    I saw this the other day in the comments section of a post and sat through it then. The entire time I was viewing it, my entire thought process was “this is where Lemons racers were prior to evolution.”

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