Dan Feller’s journey to racing victory started with his wife, Deanna, asking him to create a competitive street vehicle out of an old couch.
Twenty-four years later, Feller is still racking up ribbons with his loveseat on wheels. He hopes to win again at the Davenport Races, a slice of high jinks offered during the Homer Davenport Community Festival in Silverton Aug. 5-7.
The race kick offs, two teams at a time, at noon on Sunday, Aug. 7 in the middle of East Main Street.
The block-long course, closed to other traffic, is completed in about 15 seconds unless someone trips, the moving contraption flips in a pothole or the driver runs into something.
Rules are pretty loose. But organizers did adopt one edict — the driver has to be able to steer with some degree of accuracy — after spectators at previous races were forced to jump clear of an out-of-control recliner on a dolly with wobbly caster wheels and an Art Deco chaise lounge that wouldn’t stay straight.
Organizers of the Silverton competition, however, believe they introduced regulated couch racing three decades ago.
The distinction here: The furniture is not motorized but human powered. Behind each wheeled invention is a long bar for two to four people to hold on tight and push.
The Davenport Races started in 1990 somewhat as a parody of other small towns that had annual bed races, according to historian Gus Frederick, president of the Silverton Country Historical Society.
Here, “Davenport” works in two ways: as a nod to Silverton’s favorite son and the term used to describe an old-fashioned couch.
The summer festival honors Homer C. Davenport, who rose from his Silverton beginnings to become the highest paid political cartoonist in the world after lampooning the 1896 U.S. presidential race.
Humiliated politicians tried to pass a law banning caustic caricatures. Davenport responded with his most famous work, the “No Honest Man Need Fear Cartoons” drawing. The bill failed.
Davenport, who returned to his hometown for solace during personal and professional defeats, has been deemed “Oregon’s first media superstar” by volunteers and members of the Silverton Rotary, who have been holding the multi-day festival since 1980.
A decade later, the rollicking races were inspired by a different davenport, an eponym for a large, upholstered sofa like those manufactured by the A.H. Davenport Co. furniture company in East Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Historian Frederick’s research found that the cartoonist was a distant relative of the furniture magnate.
But unlike any other hometown festival, Silverton’s has a cartoon contest with entries from around the world and the Barb Rue Memorial Davenport Races, named after the late, longtime race organizer and coach.
“There are places that have weird races, but no one specifically drives a davenport,” said mobile couch maker Dan Feller, who has lived most of his life in Silverton. The city, northeast of Salem, has a population around 10,500.
After creating his winning racer in 1998 to promote his dad’s dentist practice — the team was then called the Molar Mowers — Feller has not done much tinkering to the hand-me-down couch.
When the green-and-orange plaid fabric disintegrated off the wooden frame, he had it reupholstered with generic blue fabric. The material was donated to Feller’s new team, the Silver Crest Rocket Club, named after Silver Crest Elementary School where he teaches science.
Some of the cushioned hotrods like Feller’s are carefully stored and re-entered in the annual festival. But there’s always room for new competitors.
Members of the Silverton Flywheels Car Club spent countless hours this year gathering materials to convert old bucket seats from a Ford van into something that could be pushed over the finish line.
A week before the festival, the club donated two bucket-seat speedsters to the Homer Race Committee, led by Barb Rue’s daughter, Tonya Rue.
To boost the number of entries, the committee lends out stock racers to teams vying for the big prize: a steel trophy with a figurine hoisting a couch over its head. An award also goes to the team with the best uniforms.
Flywheels president Rand Breitbach, a retired Salem firefighter who lives in Silverton, said he’s seen all types of furniture fly by him during the races, including a hospital gurney.
But mostly it’s reconfigured sofas. He won’t call the davenports ugly, though they’re typically found alongside the road. “Let’s just say none of them just came out of an Ashley Furniture store,” he said.
This year’s twin bucket-seat racers were made with trade-in bikes donated by Fall Line Sports in Silverton. Club members welded the front of a bike — handlebars to front tire — to a steel frame. Then they attached the seat, two rear wheels and a push bar.
The biggest challenge of the race: Getting young people to join in, said Breitbach. The Flywheels do have connections with high school students enrolled in auto shop. As of 2021, the club has given away $43,000 in scholarships with money raised by auctioning off vintage beer signs.
Another challenge: Continuing to avoid serious mishaps. Hay bales are in position to stop the DIY racers from careening far past the tape marking the finish line.
— Janet Eastman | 503-294-4072