Zack and Aidan Parral are not used to competing. Not with others, not with each other. The 9-year-old identical twins, each a slight 60 pounds — if that — are more analytically inclined.
“We go on the computer and do some mathematical stuff,” Zack, the talkative one, said as his brother clung to his arm. They play chess. Recently they’ve been into robotics.
So what explained their desire to race wooden box cars at eye-drying speeds of up to 30 miles an hour down a steep stretch of 25th Street in Sherman Heights last Saturday?
“Three reasons,” Zack explained. “One, the race. Two, we’re adventurous.” He left it at that.
Their mother, Tasi Paulson, elaborated. Since they were old enough to speak (“Since we were little kids,” Zack said) the boys had watched the annual running of the All-American Soap Box Derby with awe, and each time it was staged on the street near their Golden Hill home they asked their parents to let them do it.
Last year, they were finally old enough. And a few months ago their parents started taking them once a week to a warehouse near their new home in Logan Heights where a group of volunteers was helping neighborhood children build donated car kits.
Paulson and her husband, Jose Parral, helped the boys align the axles. They put weights in the cars. Paulson cut up a few of her yoga mats to pad the inside. “The cars are really uncomfortable,” she said.
Zack decorated his with flames along the side, Aidan with the image of a villain from the Super Mario Brothers video game.
The top winner in each of three age divisions Saturday was to win a trip to Akron, Ohio, to compete in the international derby championship. But that didn’t seem to be on the boys’ minds on Saturday. Early on, it didn’t occur to their parents that their sons had much of a shot, either. It was their first year, after all.
But as morning turned into early and then mid-afternoon, the boys were still in the running. After early losses that kicked them into the consolation bracket, they were fighting their way back, knocking off one opponent after another without seeming to realize it.
But their parents did. Their eyes grew wider with each new win. They didn’t quite believe it.
The SUV trailer that hauled the derby cars back up to the top of the hill carried fewer with each new trip. Paulson and Parral quickly shuffled to unload their sons’ 140-pound stub-nosed cars and get them ready for the next heat while the boys played nearby, oblivious to the drama unfolding in pencil on the tournament bracket.
Before each race Paulson tightened Aidan’s helmet and tucked his long brown hair into the back of his T-shirt to reduce wind drag. As he crouched in his car and prepared to be released down the hill, his mother leaned in and whispered encouragingly but with conviction: “Stay statue-straight.”
After one of Aidan’s wins, Parral slapped his wife’s arm: “We’re gonna go to Akron,” he said, only half joking.
In the end, they didn’t.
The trip went to Thomas Sanchez, a focused boy who leaned into his father, looked up and straight into his eyes, and declared, “I want first place.” Sanchez’s brother went to Akron in 2006.
Aidan placed fourth, and Zack sixth, but they were happy as they’d been all day. Their parents were too, or if they were slightly disappointed, they didn’t let on.
Parral, an architect, was taking the whole event in stride at first, he said. He hadn’t expected to be caught up in the thrill of the competition. “But then when they start to win, you realize they’re one step closer.”
When his sons were finally out of the running, Parral had a chance to step back and watch the other fathers as they prepared their children’s cars.
“They clean the wheels too?” he said as he watched one father wipe his son’s car down. “Man, I wasn’t even doing that. I was just like: Good, they’re on there.”
Next year, he’ll know.