Once a popular annual event locally, the Soap Box Derby has returned to Portsmouth, thanks to the Scioto County Civic Forum.
Former racer Erin Trapp, of Rosemount, was there Saturday and she remembers her days behind the wheel. She won the Junior Division to represent Portsmouth in the 1980 race in Akron. In 1982 she won the Senior Division to represent Portsmouth in Akron once again.
“We didn’t have hay bales down the side (when I was racing). We always just had hay bales at the end,” Trapp said. “I’m really excited it’s back. I think it’s a wonderful thing for the kids.”
Aside from adding hay-bale bumpers to protect wayward drivers, there have been a few more changes since the Soap Box Derby last rolled through town. Representatives from the All-American Soap Box Derby, in Charleston, moved the finish line up the hill, shorter than it’s ever been before.
“They said they’ve never seen a track as long as ours. We’ve been using that track for 40 years and never had a problem with it,” Gene Arms of Civic Forum said.
Cars are different today also, in that they aren’t very different at all anymore. Individual design and style are pretty much a thing of the past.
“It used to be that cars were constructed under certain guidelines but it was up to the individual to decide what construction style they wanted. But they had certain regulations, like the steering and the wheels and the axles and the brake assembly was all pretty much standard,” Arms said. “Nowadays the car in the division we’re running are all kit-cars, and they come out of Akron. All the parts are made for it and it’s just a matter of assembly and measuring.”
Thirteen-year-old Jonathan Jones, of Ironton, was one of the racers to welcome the Derby back to Portsmouth Saturday. He said this was the first time he had ever raced in something like this, and he was excited but wasn’t scared.
“This is a first for all of us,” his father, Tom Jones said. “He likes to ride dirt bikes. He just likes to try different things. He’s a real Evel Knievel.”
Jones was competing against 17 other racers Saturday — boys and girls averaging ages 10-13 — racing in cars sponsored by Wal-Mart, USEC, Civic Forum, Pepsi, Life Ambulance, Berndt & Murfin Insurance, and others.
The race began with the National Anthem just before noon. Shortly after, a large lever dropped and the first two racers took off, coasting down Kendall Avenue. An electronic timer clocked them as they crossed the finish lines, and an officer with the Portsmouth City Police clocked some of the speeds as high as 26 miles per hour.
After completing one pass, the two racers returned to the top of the hill, traded lanes and switched two wheels. Exactly which wheels they switch is decided by a random drawing.
“That’s for the possibility that there might be an advantage in one lane or the other, or the guy may have an advantage because his wheels run better,” Arms explained.
After switching lanes and wheels, the racers went down a second time. Whoever had the best combined time — their total from the first and second race — moved ahead in the competition. This NCAA-style bracket elimination continued until only two racers remained.
The winner of the race in Portsmouth will advance to the Championship in Akron in August. The list of Soap Box Derby winners was unavailable at press time Saturday evening.
According to the All-American Soap Box Derby Web site (www.aasbd.org), more than 500 qualifiers from 40 U.S. states and five foreign countries — Japan, Germany, New Zealand, Guam and the Philippines — participated in the 2006 Championship at Derby Downs in Akron.
In 1981, Howie Fraley, of Portsmouth, won first place in the Junior Division Championship in Akron. The following year Serena Ramsey, of Portsmouth, placed sixth in the same division. The race has not been offered in Portsmouth since 1982.
RYAN SCOTT OTTNEY can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 235, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.