The thrill of victory returned to Derby Downs in Akron on Saturday with the 83rd running of the All-American Soap Box Derby. The agony of defeat, not so much. After a one-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, children from across the country gathered with family and friends to glide down a recently repaved surface for a chance to win it all.
Tents packed with family lined both sides of the historic hill, food vendors near the finish line sold their wares and inflatable games awaited competitors who wouldn’t get another chance to race. Keith Nelman, father of Akron local winner Colt Nelman, 11, said his son was disappointed not to win his heat in the stock division. “What’s more important is the friends we’ve made around the country,” he said. Although Colt and his sister, Raegan, 7, didn’t make it to the final heats, they were off at the bounce house, having fun with friends they’ve made from Georgia, New York, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio. “They were upset, but it’s easy to bounce back once you see friends,” he said. The return to action pleased derby officials, too, including Tommy Waters of Morganton, North Carolina, who is regional director for North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky.
Waters said the derby will need another year to fully rebound from the canceled year. He said three cities in his region were unable to hold races due to lingering local COVID-19 restrictions. But races returned to eight other cities. In a few more years, he’s hoping his 2-year-old granddaughter will take part in the fun. “Everybody is thankful to be back,” he said. The tradition was well-represented by derby stalwart Jeff Iula, whose granddaughter, Zoe Kubick, was competing in the rally masters division.
The Cuyahoga Falls High School student has been racing for 10 years, and Iula estimated she’s been down Derby Hill 790 times. Zoe said maintaining tradition keeps her on the right track. “It’s a family tradition,” Kubick said. “It’s sentimental to me.” Matthew Wells, 15, from Indianapolis, placed second in his local race and said the national race was highly competitive as he prepared for his first heat.
He’s been racing for six years and has a side competition with his brother, who won the local masters division in Indianapolis. Matthew said he was feeling good as he approached the blocks for his heat. “I just feel like I can win it today,” he said. Green resident Scott Kolesar said his daughter, Sarah, 18, has been racing for five years and becomes more involved each year. She used a piece of digital art to craft the dragon-and-flames design on her derby car. “This will be the last time she can race with that car,” Kolesar said.
Sarah is majoring in graphics design at Kent State University, inspired by the work she did on her car, said her mother, Jill Kolesar. “I love the fact that she’s involved with the derby,” she said. Sarah won the local rally super stock division. Her twin sister, Emily, doesn’t share her passion for derby racing, preferring softball to flying downhill in a crafted wooden box. Friendship and tradition were the words of the day, and Alexa Garren, 13, of Villa Rica, Georgia, was up to the task Alexa said her father, grandfather and uncles raced and she has been, too, since 2017. “I like making new friends in racing,” Alexa said. She’s been to Akron before and noted some similarities between visits. “It’s been raining every year I’ve been here on Saturday,” she said. Although friendships make the racing more fun, Alexa said she was in it to win it. “Honestly, to me, I really want to win,” she said. “[But] I like having friends, too.”
Steve Probst, another Green resident, said his daughter, Ella, 15, first discovered derby racing when she was about 5 years old. “When she saw the car in my dad’s shop, she would run over, get into the car, and say, ‘I wanna go,’ ” he said. Ella remembers that day. “As a 5 year old, if something looks really cool, you just do it,” she said. She’s made it to the national competition three times. Her first time, she didn’t win in her first heat. In 2019, Ella won her first heat in the rally division. She also won her first pairing in the rally super stock division on Saturday. “We got the first heat,” Steve Probst said. “[We’re] hoping to win one more, at least.” He said his daughter is not overly competitive, but enjoys the friendships she’s made in derbyland. Ella agreed. “If you race, you make a lot of friends, which I have,” she said. Cory Katzenmeyer, marketing manager for the Soap Box Derby, said some local races didn’t materialize this year, but said turnout Saturday was “fantastic.” “It’s going amazing for us,” he said.
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