The world's 4th-best soap-box racer

Landen Mertz dazzles crowd of 3,000 at world championship races in Ohio

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From the minute Landen Mertz, 12, arrived in Akron, Ohio, for the All-American Soap Box Derby World Champ--ionships, he was treated like a king.

He was escorted by police for a welcome parade, then threw T-shirts and hats and other mementos from Steamboat Springs to a roaring crowd. He stood on a stage and was welcomed with the other 501 racers, who ranged in age from 8 to 16 and came from six countries. He got a free ticket and catered lunch at a local amusement park.

But the best part of the week came on race day, when Landen survived single-elimination heats to make it to the championship races, and he ended up with a fourth-place finish.

"I came to have fun," Landen said at his Steamboat home Thursday. "But after a couple races, I knew that I could do it, so I was feeling really excited."

Landen and his family spent the last week of July in Akron for the competition, in which children race cars they have assembled themselves with the help of one adult, often a parent.

Landen qualified for the world competition because he won the local race in Oak Creek in June. He received $1,000 from the Rotary Club of Steamboat Springs to help offset expenses and two plane tickets from Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp.

John Mertz, Landen's father, said the family went to enjoy the week, which was packed with events for derby participants. The idea of actually winning didn't really cross their minds until race day.

"We really went there with no expectations," John Mertz said. "After the third race, you're kind of thinking, 'Wow, Landen's car is really fast -- he could take this whole stinking thing.'"

Landen and his father built the car four years ago, and Landen has raced it locally since then. His sister Morgan, 11, and brother Hudsen, 9, also have raced. His sister Reagan, 7, eventually might want to race, too.

Landen's car is in the super stock category, so it is faster and rounder than the stock cars but not as sleek and fast as the masters' car, in which drivers lie down while driving.

The Wednesday before race day, it poured rain. Landen hit a puddle on one of his trial runs and slowed down so much he came in last for the heat.

Still, he felt ready for Saturday's race.

"I felt good -- not as good as everyone else," he said. He wasn't nervous, but excited.

When Saturday dawned, he didn't do anything special to prepare for the race.

"Just put on my glasses," he said, showing off the plastic glasses he got on a recommendation from another driver to prevent wind and bugs from getting in his eyes.

As he won one single-elimination heat after another, people started taking notice.

He probably hit 30 mph during the race, which was fun in itself.

"It just feels really good," Landen said. "It was just nice going really fast on the track."

Landen won his first three heats to become one of the nine racers to place at the World Championships.

"It's very addicting when you get to that point," his dad said.

For Landen's fourth heat, he was given the unlucky Lane 2, which was flat and seemingly more difficult because it only produced five winners during the day.

He had two options for how to drive it -- drive straight down the middle or going to the side of the lane. He tried for something in between, and that didn't help -- he was losing ground.

So he steered toward the edge of the lane, and then towards the center, but neither was working.

"At the very end, when it started to flatten out and even out ... I started catching up," Landen said. "I was about a wheel behind -- half a wheel -- when I lost."

If he had another foot of track, he would have won, he said.

For Landen's final heat, he was racing for fourth through sixth places. He came in first in that heat and won fourth overall. He was timed faster in that heat than the overall first-place winner, his mother, Victoria, said.

After the race, veteran drivers inspected the car and asked how it was built, John Mertz said.

"We didn't have any special answers for them," he said. "Landen's car was just running fast."

But, John said, four years of racing the local Soap Box Derby probably helped -- Landen drove his car straight.

And Landen had some ideas of his own for why he might have been successful.

"I had the perfect weight of racing," Landen said. "My car is 150 pounds, so I could even out the weight perfectly."

For his fourth-place win, Landen was honored on stage in front of an audience of 3,000 people. He also got to take home a humongous trophy -- something he carried through the airport by himself.

"It's a heavy trophy," he said.

The trophy was so big that, on the plane, he had to unscrew the top and store it above, and cram the bottom under the seat.

A friend who raced once but crashed and hasn't raced again, was excited about Landen's win.

"He was pysched. He was amazed when he heard I got fourth and the trophy's 3 feet tall," Landen said.

The big question -- will he race again?

"I'm retired," he said.

He can't race the same car unless he does rally racing, which requires driving across the country to race and rack up points to compete at the worlds.

Besides, he stays busy with hockey, soccer, baseball and skiing.

"I think I'll just miss the trophy and how I got it and wish I could be back there with the first-place one," Landen said.

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