SCHENECTADY — Dozens of youngsters and young adults participated in the Capital District Soap Box Derby on Saturday, which saw Franklin Street closed off and turned into the “Franklin Street Speedway” to accommodate the area’s only gravity race.
While nationally soap box racing dates back to 1934, with a championship held in Akron, Ohio, annually, the Capital District’s installment enjoyed popularity in the 1970s but waned in the ensuing decades. A local music teacher named Ginger Miller set out to bring the event back to prominence in 2006, and has helmed the local race ever since.
“It’s a great way to get the whole family involved in doing something together, and it gets kids off their computers and out doing things,” said Miller, whose son participated in the race in the 1970s. “The kids have to be involved 100 percent, they have to paint the car bodies and learn the mechanical parts of it.”
Soap box cars these days are a far cry — visually and technologically — from their literal soap box predecessors.
Each kit costs around $700, with some of the costs defrayed by local small business sponsors.
After buying and painting the torpedo-shaped car, weeks of testing and tuning follow in preparation for race day, said Michael Morawski, 22, of Guilderland. He raced in the derby from age 11 to 20, the upper age limit for the event, and now volunteers and sits on the local soap box derby board.
“I realized I loved it around 2008, that’s when it clicked,” said Morawski, who won first place at the national championship in Akron in 2010, in the masters division. “I think it was the community aspect of it and seeing what hard work gets you.”
Franklin Street was cordoned off on Saturday, with a quarter-mile long trail of cones marking the racing lanes down to the bottom of the sloped road. At the top of the street several pop-up tents were erected, underneath which were ramps from which the cars were launched.
Each race pitted two drivers and their cars against another. Morawski said the secret to a good soap box car is found in fine tuning the weight distribution and wheel alignment.
“They take a weekend to build, months to tune,” said Morawski. “Between weight distribution and alignment, you can get a lot of speed.”
The race’s 36 participants, ages 7 to 20, were divided by age and car type into three divisions: stock (drivers ages 7-13), super stock (drivers ages 9-18) and masters (drivers ages 10-20). There was also a Superkids Division, said Miller, for children with disabilities who could participate with the help of a driver. Those who participated in the Superkids Division did so in specially-made side-by-side soap box cars.
Morawski said it pains him to no longer be able to compete, but that he’s thrilled to be able to volunteer.
“I’m definitely still a kid at heart, I want to race. But now I get to give back and am in a position to help the next generation,” Morawski said. He also does get a chance to get back behind the wheel in the Superkids Division as a driver.
“Your heart just melts for these kids, when you can help get them down the hill and they can forget … they just get to be a typical soap box car racer, even if it’s only for a minute,” said Morawski.
Ian Shaw, 13, of East Greenbush, said he enjoys the competitive aspects of the event each year as opposed to the building and tuning process.
“The competition is really fun, competing against people you don’t really know,” said Shaw. “It’s kind of taught me how to drive and it’s fun to meet new people.”
Shaw races with his brother, Michael, who is 11, while the boys’ father volunteers at the event.
Miller said the familial and generational ties that soap box racing fosters is one reason it’s important that the event continues.
“I love working with kids, it’s just very rewarding to see,” she said. “And I love bringing families together. I’ve seen families actually reunite around this event.”
For Taylor Van Denburg, 17, of Albany, soap box racing is a family tradition. She competes in the masters division and races with her sister. Her father and grandfather also raced in the Capital District Soap Box Derby.
“I like the competitiveness, the aspect of going down the hill,” Van Denburg said. “You never know what you’re going to get, one stone in the road can throw you off.”
Van Denburg recently placed ninth in the masters division at the national competition in Akron.
As with Morawski, she gets a special thrill from helping out with the Superkids Division, of which three youngsters participated in this year.
“Without us they wouldn’t be able to race, and they have the best personalities,” said Van Denburg.
Asked if she’ll volunteer once she ages out of the competition, Van Denburg said emphatically that she will.
“As long as this is going on I’ll be here,” she said, “it’s family here.”