Behind The Scenes: In the Soapbox Derby, Stella Lochman is a Driving Force

Bringing the derby back is a labor of love and collaboration

by , April 2022


Stella Lochman is leading SFMOMA’s Soapbox Derby, where people build vehicles and roll them downhill at McLaren Park, and she does not drive a car.

“I know I look cool behind the wheel of my partner’s VW bus, but I am not a driver,” Lochman said.

A San Francisco local and a graduate of SFSU and the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, Lochman is the manager of community engagement at SFMOMA. Biking everywhere in the city has given Lochman a kind of perspective based on neighborhood-scale data, and a real feel for how fast a vehicle can coast downhill at the angles that San Francisco offers. She’s looking forward to the derby that she’s helped resurrect with a kind of giddy hometown pride that exists alongside a burning belief in art and the way it serves community.

Stella Lochman (left) and Tomoko Kanamitsu (right). Photo courtesy of Stella Lochman.

“I’ve been with SFMOMA thirteen years and obsessed with this derby for twelve and a half,” Lochman said by way of introduction. “When I first started at the museum, there was a brief display clip of it on exhibit. I saw it and it was incredible; it’s been camped out in the back of my mind since then. I desperately wanted to know: How do we remember how do this?”

Remembering how to do this has involved contact with alumni of the historic race; competitors and trophy artists alike have returned to reinvolve themselves with the derby.

“Dozens of staff members through the years have tried to bring this back, and the answer was to reconnect with the whole community that made it happen in the first place,” Lochman said.


Trip to Alameda for some body work.

However, the process of physically building a racer posed a new and interesting problem for Lochman and her partner, Justin Marshall.

“When we knew we were really going to do it, we went to a derby in Folsom, California,” “We watched kids who had made their cars race them, and we realized it was more complicated than we thought. None of us had done this before, and it’s a lot to ask someone to make something when you’ve never done it yourself.”

Marshall, an artist and fabricator, set about making the SFMOMA prototype car, which has been used to show the artists how the Shelley Drive terrain can be navigated by a vehicle that meets the requirements of a working steering assembly, along with having functional brakes.

Building the prototype took Marshall four to five months, a process that Lochman reports has taken over their entire garage.

The broader derby event has taken over more than that, as Lochman recounts the intrinsic problems of creating an event of such a massive scale while working from home.

“Everyone I know has gotten involved to some degree,” she explained. “I’ve lived in the Mission for fifteen years now. My relationship with the city is long, but it really starts at home. Justin has been running the prototype up and down Hampshire Street, so our neighbors have seen the whole process.”

Families from Lochman’s block have been jogging down 19th Street alongside the car, and retired cable car drivers have been providing mechanical advice on how to steer a car down the notoriously steep hills of San Francisco. Artists have been coming to Lochman’s house to pick up flyers and drop off trophies.

“San Francisco is a hard place to be an artist, but part of what’s hard is that it’s so easy to forget how interconnected we are,” Lochman noted. “All this was right here, but until the derby project started, it was hidden. This city still has a beating heart that thrives on these wacky, zany activities.”

Working on it in the garage.

Lochman cited the long lockdown and the restrictions associated with COVID-19 as major motivations for why the derby is such a good fit for our current predicament. “I’ve been training my whole life for this moment, but when we needed community engagement from an outdoor event, the pandemic giveth and the pandemic taketh away. This is the best time for the derby, because we need to be outside, and we need to see some art.”

When asked about what it means for the community to see art like this, outside of the confines of the museum and removed from the traditional context of an exhibition, Lochman was thoughtful:

“A lot of people underestimate or have false assumptions about what a museum actually is. People ask what we would forbid at the museum and the answer is: nothing. As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone and it’s not hate speech, we wouldn’t ban it. People have this notion of an antiseptic process that’s needed for something to become art and enter the museum…With this event, we drop the pretense.”


How it began in the garage.

Dropped, too, are the pretensions around winning and recognition the way the art world has traditionally done it. With categories like Most Amorphous or Most Illusory, artists from around the city are bringing unique trophies to Lochman’s home in every possible form, ready to celebrate each vehicle and driver that careens down from the top of the hill and through that exclusive front door between the museum space and the public imagination.

In thanking her community for their hard work and important contributions, Lochman cited a familiar adage: “Many hands make light work. This has been a really challenging exercise as a post COVID-19 event. We couldn’t do this at all without Mercenary Productions of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass— they are the real deal. [Barbara and Stephen Vermut Director of Public Engagement] Tomoko Kanamitsu has been instrumental in the planning. There are so many people making this happen. At the end of this project, I will have talked to every artist in San Francisco, and that is so cool.”

For a person who does not drive, Stella Lochman seems incredibly comfortable behind the wheel of this event. Shifting gears through the pandemic, community outreach, and accelerating toward the idea of the museum in the public consciousness, she has her foot firmly on the gas.


Almost finished car on Hampshire street.

Meg Elison

Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a bicoastal author of six books of fiction and a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in Slate, Bustle, 7x7, the Fair Observer, the Daily Californian, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and a high school dropout. Fifty Years of Free Speech: Perspectives on the Movement that Revolutionized Berkeley is a collaborative historical project Elison helped write, and is available wherever books are sold. Twitter: @megelison