For the first time in 77 years, towers of light illuminated Derby Downs as cars raced down the hill after sunset.
The lights were only rented, and the racers were just staff and volunteers testing their placement, but International Soap Box Derby President Joe Mazur deemed the Thursday evening event a success.
Starting next spring, Derby Downs will rent out for after-dark events.
“It’s part of our overall plan to increase the number of events at the track as well as offer different types of events for our customers and partners,” he said.
This year, Derby Downs hosted 70 events as part of their mission to get more use out of the historic track and generate money for the organization, which has often struggled financially.
In years past, the track’s main purpose was to host the world All-American Soap Box Derby championship, a one-week summer meet, with the facility seeing little activity the rest of the year.
Now, in addition to rally races, companies and organizations have been renting Derby Downs for picnics, team-building events and charitable fundraisers at a cost of $1,000 a hour.
It’s easy to understand why so many adults want to come play at Derby Downs, Mazur said. Many of them grew up in the Akron area, dreaming of flying down the iconic hill next to Akron Fulton International Airport.
“It’s on their bucket list,” he said.
But even in mid-summer when days are their longest, the derby has had to shoo customers off by 9 p.m.
At least one company has already requested a night event next year, Mazur said.
He also envisions youth events like a Rockin’ Rally with music blaring, or themed events like a Halloween race.
“We can extend our season as the days get shorter,” Mazur noted.
The lights will come in handy for the main event as well, he said. In recent years, new races have been added to the annual Derby Week in July, stretching resources and daylight.
“Now it’s hard to stop at 9,” Mazur said. “We’re almost maxed out on what we can do. With lights up, we could go later.”
The derby will rent the lights when needed. They run about $120 each, and Thursday’s testing suggests about 10 would be needed to light the track, parking and walking areas.
That will add about $1,200 to the bill for a company or group using Derby Downs at night.
The light towers reach nearly 30 feet high, each with four 1,000-watt bulbs.
Adam Bozic, who placed second in the 1998 world championship, was on site to help figure out the best angle for the towers so they would light the track without blinding the racers.
“It’s like playing under the lights anywhere else,” he said. “It’s a fun and totally different atmosphere.”
Megan Gongaware agreed. The 2010 world stock champ from Perry Township stopped by Derby Downs to give it a go.
For one thing, she said, it’s practical. She said she’s participated in rallies that ran out of daylight, forcing racers to flip coins to see who got to finish their heats.
But for a kid, there’s even a bigger reason to hold nighttime rallies.
“It’s just really cool,” the 16-year-old said before slipping into a test car and sailing into the night.