Kevala Jokiel celebrates his 8th birthday with family and friends at the American Box Car Racing International race track in Pearl City.

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Riding the Asphalt Wave in Pearl City

By: Brett Wagner
Oahu Island News

The global nexus of box car racing is situated on a lot in Pearl City between Sam’s Club and an array of former Navy warehouses. Here, evenings and weekends, people gather to climb into small, open-seated cars and roll downhill, negotiating curves and embankments, unaided by piston or pedal. There is a gravel area for parking the gas-powered cars that got you to the track, and three courses for racing the kind that only go downhill. There is a snack counter, a couple of spectator tents, and a workshop where participants can build their own box cars under the guidance of the staff. Operated by a non-profit organization established in 1995, this serviceable but rough-hewn facility is a work-in-progress, a switchback on the uphill journey toward the realization of a grander vision. But it is also represents a considerable achievement in grassroots community organizing. Robert “B.C.” Cowling, a transplant from Indiana and 1961’s go-carting world champion, organized his first box car race in the parking lot of Leeward Community College in June of 1996. For the first three years, every event entailed transporting, assembling, and then striking a cumbersome temporary track. Finally, in March of 1999, the Pearl City facility saw its first box cars roll. This is as far as things have come, but the name of the organization speaks to its far-reaching ambitions: American Box Car Racing International (ABCRI).

The ABCRI’s closest cousin is the Soapbox Derby, which began in Akron, Ohio, in 1934. But soapbox racing is a different sport from box cars and, it could be argued, more an engineering competition than a race. “Soapboxers are dragsters, we’re Formula 1,” explains B.C. That is, the Soapbox Derby is a downhill race on a straight course; no turns, no maneuvering. Racers with the most drag-efficient cars will usually win if they hunker down and don’t flinch. Box car racing, by contrast, is all about driving chops. After a brief downhill straightaway, it’s all twists and turns – a narrow lane full of devilish hairpins. Precision steering, the judicious shifting of weight, and a knack for folding yourself into an aerodynamic lozenge while managing to keep an eye on the road can mean the difference between winning by a nose or losing by a length. Which is not to say the car doesn’t matter. Any number of tweaks and improvements must be administered to the standard kit car if you hope to ride it into glory, as I learn when I meet the golden boy of ABCRI, who has driven his car to more glory than anybody else in the sport: one Windell Jones.

First, a look at Windell’s stats. Age: 18. Weight: I’d eyeball him at about 120. First race: 1996. Endorsements: His two cars are named for the Boeing 747 and 767, but the Chicago based aerospace conglomerate has yet to pony up a seven-figure payday. Wins: Windell puts it at 13 to 18 championships in seven years of racing, but B.C. suggests the real figure is closer to 30. “I never really cared about the trophies,” says the self-effacing champion. “It’s just fun to be low to the ground, taking turns, being on the edge of out of control.

Windell, a senior at Waipahu High School who joined ABCRI as the organization’s first youth volunteer, does not strike the casual observer as anything like out-of-control. He is, instead, a thoughtful and ambitious young man with an obvious passion for what he does – and for what he wants to do. He is planning a career as a pilot and a second career as an aeronautical engineer, charting his course and soundly assessing the obstacles, financial and otherwise, that his passion and intellect must help him to overcome. Raised by his grandmother and his uncle in Waipahu, Windell first heard about box car racing on the radio and phoned B.C. to inquire about getting involved. As B.C. tells it, he arrived “a skinny 11 year-old kid with smudgy glasses” and lots of enthusiasm and in time developed into an expert driver, a volunteer “who put in more time here than anybody else by a factor of six or eight,” a staffer, and B.C.’s hanai son. You could call him the Mario Andretti of box cars, but you’d have to toss in Mario’s pit crew, the judges’ box and maybe even the racing commissioner. In short, Windell is box car racing.

He introduces me to the 767, a silver and blue car he built in the summer of 1999, reputed to be the fastest box car in the ABCRI fleet and perhaps by extension Oahu and (why not?) the world. Maybe it’s the paint job, but something about this vehicle – hanging in its storage locker amid other box cars with their corporate logos and design modifications and painted-on homages to speed and fury in the form of licking orange flames – just screams speed. Without prompting, he gives me a tour of the refinements he has made to the 767. He starts at the nose, modified with wood and Bondo to be rounder, smoother, as “aerodynamically clean” as the nose of, say, a commercial airliner. But the most important part of the car is the wheels. They should be perfectly parallel on their axles, which should be perfectly parallel to each other and perpendicular to the body of the car. The wheels should be seated evenly on the rims and the rims should turn in perfect concert with the hub. Windell explains that he recently learned how to “true” the wheels – that is, to adjust the spokes to eliminate any rotational dissonance between the hub and the rim that might “scrub off speed.” He likens imperfections in wheel alignment to a yawing plane, squandering forward momentum by deviating from the linear. These things matter, as does the play of the bearings (Are they too snug? Too loose?), the tire pressure and the bead of the tread (Do the tires grip the pavement just enough to prevent skidding, but not so much as to create wasteful drag?) Racing, Windell says, “is about the rate at which you expend your energy. The more energy you have at the end, the faster you are.

Windell has a lot of energy. I follow him to the “big track” to watch him initiate a group of drivers, mostly 8 to10 year-old girls today, who just graduated from the organization’s two smaller tracks. “Okay, drivers! You’re going to take your experience on the smaller track and apply it to this track. There are three stages of training…” He seems at ease in his leadership role as he explains that the drivers (he always addresses them as “drivers”) must race from two lower, slower starting marks before trying the uppermost position on the ramp. For racing season, the white bumpers that cap the course are removed and racers start from a still higher point, making for a much faster run. But these drivers seem content to take it slow. I watch them push their vehicles to the summit, yank the handbrakes to secure the cars – now fairly bursting with potential energy – and clamber into their seats. Windell inspects them for preparedness to race, keeping an eye out for disaster in the offing. The race is briefly delayed when one driver spots a ladybug on the track. Another driver takes her place as she escorts the bug to safety. And then Windell sets them free. There is much screaming, gleeful and otherwise, on this first descent (“Yeah, baby, yeah!” “Excellente!” “I hate thiiiiisss!”) and much lane trading and displacement of cones, but all four girls achieve the finish line intact. Who actually won is the topic of a brief, good-natured dispute, but there is little energy wasted vying for place. It’s time to haul cart uphill for another run.

On the other tracks this racing day, drivers are proving their mettle and logging hours toward graduation to the big track and license to compete in the championship races. “This is my lucky car, and this my lucky track, so this is my lucky day!” exclaims a young driver at the helm of blue & white #73, the Slim’s Power Tools car. Challenging the Slim’s driver is Archer Yamaki, a first-time visitor to ABCRI who favors the innermost lane. Archer has selected #305, a standard kit car decorated with smiley faces, a machine that compensates with cheerful design elements for what it evidently lacks in raw speed. In the final stretch, lulled by his sluggish approach to the finish line, Archer yawns and puts his hands behind his head – and promptly collides with the tire median. Staffer Kelly Carrington is on hand to ask the bemused but uninjured driver, “Where do your hands go?”

Kelly came to ABCRI as a youth volunteer two years ago and joined the staff last year. Her mother, Colleen, also works here part time. Both praise the cheerful and wholesome atmosphere of the place. “Everyone always gets along,” says Colleen. “This is racing with a small ‘r,’” adds B.C. “It’s about healthy family activity, education, and fun.” The drivers seem to intuit that the spoils of victory amount to a good time and another ride (which also happen to be the compensation for defeat) and that arguments over a photo finish or a collision on the track aren’t worth the effort. In my three visits to ABCRI I saw not a single bruised knee nor bruised ego.

B.C. has aspirations to take box car racing well beyond this three-track operation behind the Sam’s Club. The city and county of Honolulu plans to provide a permanent home for box car racing at the Royal Kunia Park & Ride that could comprise as many as seven fully graded and contoured tracks. If all goes well, in three to five years Oahu may boast a world-class facility capable of launching the sport into far-reaching popularity. It is a big plan seeking momentum in an era of waning resources. But in the gravel lot in Pearl City sits a totem of box car history: the portable ramp that, just a few years ago, B.C. hauled to parking lots and dead-end streets, creating a makeshift track for the occasional weekend of racing. Now this plywood hunk of history, baking and splitting under the Hawaiian sun, rests fifty yards from the facility that replaced it – and speaks to the progress of a few years’ hard work. As Windell Jones observes, “the shortest distance between two points isn’t necessarily the fastest.” It’s all about the efficient utilization of potential energy. Will ABCRI one day live up to the “I” in its name? Hard to say. But it has potential.

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