“Do you know why it’s called a soapbox race?” asked soapbox derby racer Navy Poage. “Because soap used to come in big boxes, and kids used to take the boxes and they would put wheels on them and stuff. And then they would go down a hill. They would have races against each other.”
The sport has changed since then. The soapbox derby held Saturday in the parking lot of Kenai’s Challenger Learning Center was the 9th annual derby organized by the Kenai Rotary Club under the direction of Scott Hamann, owner of Metal Magic welding and fabrication shop. Rather than soapboxes, it featured fiberglass-bodied cars, which Hamann said were designed by NASCAR engineers, outfitted with wire-controlled steering and braking systems and sponsored by organizations such as Wells Fargo bank, Stanley Chrysler, Peninsula Memorial Chapel, Metal Magic, the Kenai Elks Club, and Autozone.
The cars, with drivers inside, were restricted to a maximum of 240 pounds, which had to be distributed between the car’s nose and tail. Sixteen cars entered, with drivers up to middle school age.
After 2 1/2 hours of racing, first prize was awarded to Wyatt Walaszak, who won a trophy and his choice of either a $1,000 scholarship from the Rotary Club, or a trip to Akron, Ohio, with his family and car, to compete in the National All-American Soapbox Derby.
Like the old soapboxes, hills were also missing from Saturday’s race. Cars where launched instead from the deck of a flatbed trailer using a ramp that Hamann had built. Hamann said that previous races went down a hill on Kenai’s Spruce Street, but that hill was now considered unsafe.
“The road just got so tore up it wasn’t safe to run the kids down there anymore,” Hamann said. He estimated that during the Spruce Street races, cars had reached up to 35 miles per hour.
Poage said that she hadn’t known about soapbox racing until yesterday, when her aunt volunteered her for the race.
“When she told me I was racing in a box, I imagined like a cardboard box being pushed down a hill,” Poage said. Her friend Mickinzie Ticknor was also a first-time racer.
“It would be really fun to do it again,” Ticknor said. “This time I want to build my own car.”
She hopes to have the Kenai Boys and Girls Club sponsor her, or that she would have another chance to drive for the Kenai Elks Club, her sponsor this year.
Another first-time racer was the champion, Walaszak, whom Hamann had asked to drive one of the three cars owned by Metal Magic.
“I think I did well because I was confident, and I tucked my head really low,” said Walaszak. “Just enough so I could see a little.”
Walaszak said his car, with him in it, weighed 114 pounds. In addition to keeping his head down, he made minimum use of the car’s steering.
“The hardest part is not to run into the cones,” said Walaszak. “But you’re not supposed to steer because that makes you slow down, unless you’re going to the cones.”
Like Walaszak, second-place winner Grant Glidden and third-place winner Alston Thomas also drove Metal Magic cars. Hamann said most of the funds raised by the race would go toward sending the winning car and driver to Akron, with the remainder going to the Rotary scholarship fund.
After the conclusion of the derby, Hamann left up the ramp and brought out adult-sized soapbox cars for informal competition among the race’s grown spectators. An adult race cost $25, to be paid by the loser. The smaller soapbox cars were returned to storage, where they will remain until next year.