The Circuit: The Kirby Derby Returns

Creativity, community and friendly competition abound at a beloved inner-Raleigh tradition, back for the first time since 2019.
by Emma Ginsberg | photography by Bryan Regan

In June, the early summer breeze carries tantalizing whispers: Dead Man’s Curve… crashes… the Cup. Come July, neighbors run mysterious errands and return with wooden planks and metal pipes peeking out of their shopping bags. They stock their closets with outlandish wigs, face paint and costume jewelry. But their purpose remains a secret.

Then one evening in August, the sound of sawing and hammering hums out of open garages in Pullen Park Terrace. Wheels squeak experimentally down driveways, each trial carrying more weight than the last. In night air palpable with anticipation, neighbors work feverishly to build elaborate structures of every shape and shade, sharing drinks and swapping tools as darkness folds in around the block.

And then, when the sun rises, Kirby Street explodes: It’s Derby Day.

The Kirby Derby soapbox race is a time-honored tradition in Pullen Park Terrace, a small neighborhood formed by Kirby Street and the adjoining Bilyeu Street. “On the night before the Derby, when everyone’s out building their cars, you can carry your drink with you from house to house and have a very social evening,” says Chris Dell’Anno, a Pullen Park resident and the Derby’s official/unofficial emcee.

Every year since 2002, residents, friends and curious Raleighites don costumes and line the street to watch the annual event. Handbuilt, gravity-powered cars disguised as everything from sharks to cake slices barrel downhill to the tune of cheering neighbors, all racing for the Kirby Cup. Some cars wipe out early on; others are surprisingly fast. Many creations are there less to race than to be seen, eye-catching spectacles that draw oohs and ahhs from fans as they amble past. Kirby Street may be small, but the Kirby Derby is a huge showcase of residents’ creativity; it’s a celebration of community. “All aspects of it are good-spirited,” says Pullen Park resident Danielle Teed. “It’s just an event full of family and fun, run by people who are very passionate about it.”

“It started as a joke,” says Dell’Anno. “We were at Aly and Beth Khalifa’s house electing a new president for the neighborhood association. Aly left the room, someone nominated him, and he was elected before he even knew he was nominated. When he got back we congratulated him, and he said he would only be president if we had a parade, thinking that would get him out of it. Instead, we embraced the idea.”

The Khalifas led planning efforts for the first celebration, a simple parade of homemade floats. The crowd-drawing soapbox race (and pinecar derby for younger auto engineers) didn’t become part of the event until the tradition’s seventh year. “People were hemming and hawing about how it was called a derby but there was no race, so we just kind of added one and that’s how we wound up where we are,” said Dell’Anno. The Kirby Cup, the trophy that would eventually be awarded to race victors, entered the picture serendipitously. “A friend of a friend bought the trophy at a yard sale as a gift, and then it got passed on to me,” says Dell’Anno. “We had plates put on it, and now the winner gets their name added to it every year.”

For 15 years, the Derby took place right on Kirby Street, where a sharp turn they call Dead Man’s Curve caused crashes that became the stuff of legends (residents suggest you watch one of the many Kirby Derby crash compilations on YouTube), and spectators mingled while drifting in and out of residents’ homes. It was an invite-only event to keep it small and neighborhood-focused. “We asked media who wanted to write stories about the Derby to do it after the event,” says Dell’Anno. “Then one year, the Friday before the race we were on the front page of the paper.”

The crowds weren’t too bad, and Pullen Park Terrace has had a change of heart in recent years. “Now, we tell people to tell anybody and everybody they talk to about the Derby,” says Dell’Anno. “We want it to be as big as possible.”

Today’s Kirby Derby is a full-blown festival complete with local food trucks and cold beer, the planning effort still fearlessly led by the Khalifas. Though drivers from around Raleigh can now compete in the soapbox race for the Kirby Cup, the people’s-choice Neighborhood Trophy goes to a Pullen Park Terrace resident as a reminder of the place at the heart of it all. By 2017, the event had gained so much traction that it was moved to nearby Dorothea Dix Park to accommodate growing crowds.

It was a big leap, but the event hasn’t lost its close-knit community roots. “When the Kirby Derby happened in Dix Park, we came together ahead of time and made props. The neighborhood gathered to spraypaint giant stars that we hung from the trees,” says Teed. “I don’t feel like being in Dix Park takes away the neighborhood vibe, because we’re still planning the Derby together.”

The Derby was canceled due to Hurricanes Florence and Michael in 2018 and Covid concerns in 2020 and 2021. But the 2019 Derby (pictured here) drew more adoring spectators than ever before, many of whom are anticipating the Derby’s triumphant return in 2022. The race is planned for Aug. 20, with a Roaring Twenties theme to celebrate the Kirby Derby’s 20th anniversary and kickstart another decade of races.

Teed believes that after such a long hiatus, this year’s Kirby Derby will be especially meaningful. “We haven’t seen each other as much because of Covid, so I think there’s a pent-up desire to come together again. Everybody’s hungry to have these community events,” says Teed. “Also, any ideas from the last two Kirby Derbys that were maybe going to happen but didn’t happen? People are still working on those and ready to use them. I think there’s going to be a bigger response than ever.”

The people of Kirby Street hope their creative momentum will carry through the whole Triangle, inspiring others to celebrate their communities. “I want to encourage other neighborhoods to do similar stuff. The Kirby Derby has really brought our neighborhood together, and it brings out our creativity,” says Dell’Anno. “What Raleigh needs is more parties. More creative parties.”

Kirby Derby competitors pull out all the stops to design soapbox cars and parade costumes that capture the annual theme — there’s no such thing as overdressed on Derby Day. In 2019, the theme was “A REEL Good Time,” and participants paid tribute to their favorite movies. Silas Huckins (pictured), who has been in the Derby every year since he was 1, attacked the racetrack in a Jaws-themed car.

Sometimes, prizes are also awarded for Best Use of Theme and Best Use of Bamboo (to encourage cutting invasive bamboo in Pullen Park Terrace). But the secret of the Kirby Derby is that nobody really cares about the trophies — the real prizes are friendship and happy memories.

This story originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of WALTER Magazine.