San Clemente nixes a July 4 tradition of racing office chairs, sofas, surfboards down a steep street

San Clemente, CA, Thursday, August 5, 2022 - Activity along Avenida Del Mar. San Clemente City Council is proposing an abortion ban. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
Activity along Avenida Del Mar in San Clemente. The city is replacing the longstanding unpermitted office chair race on July 4 with a new event called Stars, Stripes & Slip 'N Slides. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The annual Fourth of July race began 19 years ago without planning or concern for safety: Three young friends decided to celebrate America's birthday by hurling themselves down a steep San Clemente street in office chairs.

The unsanctioned derby has grown in popularity over its nearly two decade run — last year drawing 7,000 enthusiasts from across the county to the residential streets. But some neighbors are fed up with the shenanigans that come with the race. They complained to the city that the race has resulted in injuries and spectators have strewn trash across the neighborhood and used their yards as public restrooms.

As a result, the city has in effect canceled the race, taking over Avenida Victoria and Avenida Rosa, two streets normally dedicated to the derby for a more "family friendly" celebration called Stars, Stripes & Slip ‘N Slides.

"The event has at times became unsafe," Samantha Wylie said of the derby during a City Council meeting last month.

She said firefighters have not been able to respond to incidents near the derby without being hit by water balloons. Last year, a person was injured after being hit with a frozen water balloon.

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Stars, Stripes & Slip 'N Slides will feature a 300-foot inflatable water slide, an obstacle course and a smaller slide for kids. There will be a water balloon contest, a pie-eating contest, a hula hoop contest, music, food trucks and a beer garden. The event is free to attend, but the city is charging for wristbands for certain activities.

"We're still going to draw the crowd that wants to be there, but we'll have the right safety dials in place that protects the city a little bit further as well as the homeowners and residents that live on that street," Wylie said.

Office chair race enthusiasts have accused the city of taking the freedom out of a day meant to honor it.

What started as a simple office chair race transformed over years into a show of creativity and is the longest running event of its kind in the world, organizers say.

Over the years, the derby has attracted go-karts, tricycles, surfboards on wheels and even inflatable horses attached to a piece of wood nailed to two skateboards rolling through the neighborhood. In 2019, a group tore down the street relaxing on a leather loveseat on wheels. As part of the tradition, spectators fling water balloons at the racers as they zip by.

"This sucks," one person wrote on a city social media post advertising the new event. Another complained that because people "ruined" the office chair races "we now have to pay to be babysat by the city."

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City Manager Andy Hall said residents have told him that the event was enjoyed for many years but it's grown so large that "it's just a little more than that area can handle," especially without restrooms and other amenities.

"There was one lady that said someone came into her home and demanded to use her restroom," Hall said during a council meeting this month. "He may have been a bit inebriated."

But the office chair race might not be stalled for long.

"Word on the street is that some of the racers may go underground for this year's race," organizers wrote on the group's Facebook page.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.