Building Soap Box Derby cars at local clinic provides more than competition

It’s more than building a car and driving down a hill in a competition in June. It’s all about building lasting family bonds.

That’s what drivers and their helpers, many of them fathers, mothers and grandparents, said at the recent Williamsport Soap Box Derby car construction clinic. At this time, 58 drivers in two divisions – stock and superstock weight classes – are prepared for the fun-filled competitive event on June 15 taking place at the top of the Market Street hill with viewing vantages for spectators all the way down the slope.

Matthew Beard, 11, spent last Saturday at the clinic, inside a building at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, eager to see the results of building his car.

A driver since 2010, Beard and his father, Mark, triangulated the rear axle so that it was parallel and balanced.

Asked what his goal was three years ago when he drove a car for the first time, and what his hope is for next month’s competition, Beard replied, “I wanted to do well the first time and now I want to win.”

“It’s a great family event,” Beard said, adding that there’s a bond between father and son, especially building the car and then practicing on the street.

The bonding nature of Soap Box Derby is one reason Larry Mannolini, steering committee member and volunteer coordinator, does it each year.

“Our task here is to have the drivers and their families put the cars together and give them time to practice prior to the race,” he said. “It provides the kids and their family time together, and the aim is to give all the participants a good experience, filled with memories and see dads, moms, grandparents, uncles and aunts all working together.”

Drivers from ages 7 through 17 drive in two divisions: stock, which is for drivers 7 through 13 years of age with total weight of 200 pounds, and superstock, for drivers 9 through 17, with weight of 240 pounds, Mannolini said.

In each car station, a car has a mechanical or other kind of problem that must be repaired.

For the drivers, such as Maddie Solano, 13, of Montgomery, representing companies such as Murray Motors, the feeling of accomplishment is the best part of the overall Soap Box Derby experience.

The competition isn’t nasty, but it can be fierce.

For Jack Holmes, whose team since the derby inception in Billtown has been Team Jack, driving is a family affair.

His grandfather, Gerry Emig, carefully checked the brake as Holmes sat in the driver’s seat during the clinic.

“In his first year we built the car from scratch right out of the box,” said Paula Holmes, the driver’s mother. “Third place last year and we’re trying for first this year,” she said. “It’s a neat event and a sport.”

Holmes said she could not give enough credit to Campbell and the race staff.

“They are phenomenal,” she said.

Campbell said the event isn’t possible without the support of the city, Williamsport Sun-Gazette, Backyard Broadcasting, Kiwanis Club of Williamsport and Pennsylvania College of Technology, along with businesses that sponsor each race car.

“I think the best thing about this event is the bonding,” said Don Noviello, assistant race coordinator and a member of Williamsport City Council. His derby hat on at the clinic, however, Noviello remarked on how he has seen family’s draw closer together by building the car, testing it, practicing and performing on derby day.

“I saw a boy work beside his soon-to-be step-father,” Noviello said. “It worked well and he appreciated the time they spent together,” he said of the adult chaperone. “It’s more than racing down the hill.”

Sure, there is a sense of competition, but it’s all about sportsmanship, Noviello said. “There’s no crying, no pointing fingers and everyone is patting each other’s backs for each other’s victories,” he said.

“It’s fun riding in a car,” said Maria Helminiak, 10, whose done it four years. “You can see how it’s built and then drive.”

The winning driver, who might be Helminiak, will be given the Darwin Cooper Memorial trophy. Cooper captured first place in 1951 in Williamsport, and went on to become international champion in Akron, Ohio that year, Campbell said.

He returned to be the grand marshal in 2011, but died the following year.

Between 1940 and 1954, with no races held during World War II, the city sent 10 champions to Akron, with drivers earning, first, second, seventh and 11th places.