Downhill Racers


— No Newtons are needed to test gravity at Steamboat Springs' first Soap Box Derby. The natural gravitational force of the Earth, along with the weight and size of participants and their homemade vehicles, will determine the winner.

Although Steamboat may be running at a snail's pace as far of the evolution of the soap box derby race in the country, the nearly 70-year tradition as the greatest amateur racing event in the world has finally made it to the Yampa Valley.

The Steamboat Rotary Soap Box Derby, on May 19, will begin at the top of Rockies Way after children ages 9 to 16 have spent time and energy assembling their cars.

Michelle Petix, derby director at Emerald City, said children who want to race soap box cars need to quickly find individuals or businesses to sponsor the $500 cost.

"In order to have the derby, you've got to have cars. I'm trying to get the Derby Fever going, but it's the kids' responsibility to find sponsors," Petix said.

The idea for a Steamboat derby started when Steamboat summer resident Dick Morre mentioned the idea to Petix.

"Every town has a character and he's it (for Steamboat)," Petix said about Morre. "He's an idea man, always thinking how things can be improved. Among his many other ideas, the soap box derby stuck with me."

After hours of research and filling out permit applications, Petix found the Rotary Club to be the title sponsor for this year's event.

Because the Rotary Club promotes fellowship and perseverance, but is business oriented, Petix said it's the perfect sponsorship to provide a recreational opportunity for kids.

"It's like any sport. You get out of it what you put into it," Petix said. "It's a level of craftsmanship and sportsmanship ... setting and completing goals."

Petix said the focus of the derby is to develop or enhance an adult/child relationship by working together. While sponsors have the chance to be involved with a child's learning experience, children can use anyone to help build their car.

"It's designed to nurture and encourage a positive parent/child relationship," Petix said. "You need an adult, but it's not for an adult to do."

Jay Wetzler, president of the Rotary Club, said doing something for youth and the community is one of the Rotary Club's philanthropic endeavors. As the title sponsor for the derby, Wetzler said he hopes the turnout is prosperous so they can have the event again next year.

"We don't want to put the buggy in front of the horse, but if the turnout is good and the support from the community is good, then we'd be happy to do it again," Wetzler said.

Collaborating with middle school teacher Johnny Walker, Petix said she has found 63 good auto-related business matches as sponsors. Walker will be an inspector for the derby, making sure each child driver took part in constructing the derby car.

"If the inspector says, 'Show me the air spoiler,' and you don't know where the air spoiler is ," Petix said.

Sponsors for the race include the city of Steamboat Springs, Alpine Bank and El Pomar Youth in Community Service. Petix also said she is waiting for decisions from the Yampa Valley Community Foundation and Routt County United Way.

On the other hand, sponsors for the soap box derby cars can originate in any form, i.e. parents, businesses, business donations, etc.

Sponsors have three options: a business-owned car that the youth driver builds and races, with the company retaining all ownership rights; a driver-owned car that a business sponsors and retains only promotional rights for one year; and a creative shared ownership between the business and the driver, partnering businesses or a self-defined sponsorship.

At least 10 cars with drivers need to register in the race in order for a winner to proceed to Akron, Ohio, for the All-State Championship. Already with seven cars and drivers, the race should be well on its way by race day. If the winner goes on to the championship, a business could have a chance at national marketing, Petix said.

"The derby director I'm talking to in Houlten, Maine, a town that makes Steamboat look metropolitan, said they've got only 6,000 people in the whole county and 199 racers," Petix said.

The event began with a middle school connection because of the largest age and weight group in that entity, and because Walker has been instrumental in the solar car races every year.

Petix said when she approached Walker about the idea, he confirmed her thoughts that the community needed something new in Steamboat.

"We need to have a substance-free activity that's geared toward youth and families. I really would love to see this grow and be a family event," Petix said.

What is a Soap Box Derby?

A Soap Box Derby is a gravity-racing program for boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 16.

The first Soap Box Derby in Steamboat will be the Super Stock Division. This division and car to match is made for those participants less than 6 feet tall and less than 150 pounds. Altogether, the car with the wheels and the driver can be no heavier than 230 pounds.

The Super Stock kit can be assembled in four to six hours, Petix said, in about a weekend. Wheels are not included in the kit.

The race will begin May 19 at the top of Rockies Way (next to The Rockies Condos). Because of the one-way street sign, closing off the street and diverting traffic is a simple procedure, Petix said.

For 600 feet, two racers will compete in a heat, or race. After the first heat, the drivers will race again, but this time they will switch lanes to make the competition fair. Whoever has the best time of the two races wins that heat and competes against the next bracket's winners.

The person who loses the race forms another category and still competes with those who also haven't won. At the end, the winner of all the brackets will compete against the winner of the brackets from the challenged side to find out who is the winner of the entire derby.

If you lose the race twice, you are out of the race, also called double elimination. Petix said she hopes at least 25 drivers register their cars for the race.

The goals of the derby are to promote families working together to teach youngsters some of the basic skills of workmanship along with the spirit of competition and the perseverance to continue a project to completion. Adults learn new abilities while teaching the driver proper use of tools. The time spent together helps build a stronger bond and becomes an enjoyable shared experience.

Soap Box Derby History

In 1934, a Dayton, Ohio, photographer found three boys racing down an inclined brick street with homemade, engineless cars. With his innovative thinking, he began holding races and presenting winners with prizes.

One of the cars that didn't win the prize painted his car black with a big white "7." Old No. 7 became the symbol of the derby and is part of the national Soap Box Derby emblem.

Chevrolet embraced the idea and sponsored the first All-American Soap Box Derby in 1934 in Akron because of its central location and hilly terrain.

In the early years, cars were constructed from orange crates, sheet tin and included baby-buggy wheels.

In 1936, Chevrolet and Akron's civic leaders established a permanent Soap Box Derby track site for the youth riders Derby Downs.

Currently, Soap Box Derby races run in several foreign countries with winners participating at the national event in Akron.


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