It was a terrible day to start something great.
For Melony Heyn, there was little else to do but keep her appointments. So she drove toward Derby Downs on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, as a radio broadcast chronicled the towers falling in New York City.
Scheduled weeks in advance, Heyn was meeting fellow volunteers with the Great Ohio Area Super Kids Classic to talk about taking the program national so disabled derby racers from across the U.S. could enjoy the thrill of a national championship.
With the terrorist attacks looming in everyone’s mind, the group met, prayed and rescheduled for a month later. But before parting, they vowed to get the program up and running.
“We knew that night that we were going to start building something,” Heyn said Friday as she guided a disabled child toward a twin-seat soap box car at Derby Downs.
“That’s a good way of putting it,” agreed Mike Callahan, president of the organization they formed that night, the National Super Kids Classic.
In its 11th year, the National Super Kids Classic brought 100 volunteers, 14 derby racers (also known as co-pilots) and 67 disabled children together Friday to celebrate a cause launched more than 30 years ago by a local group of Vietnam veterans.
“From the local humble beginnings in Akron, they had five racers. Now they get 50 or 60 kids out here every year,” Vietnam veteran Bruce Hunsicker, who joined the local Kids Classic in 1988, seven years after it was formed in 1981.
It would take two more decades before the program had a national championship akin to the All-American Soap Box Derby.
“Taking it to the national level, that was a lot of work, a lot of convincing. A lot of liability issues. But going back to the roots, it was Vietnam veterans who said we’ve got to do something for these kids,” Hunsicker said.
Hunsicker, president of the Akron chapter of the Soap Box Derby, was present on 9/11 when he and three now deceased Vietnam veterans — Mike Arnold, Russ Boise and Ron Taiclet — joined Heyn, Callahan and others to get the wheels turning on the national championship.
The cause was the same as it had been when veterans launched the local race for disabled children.
“If we help these kids, maybe we can help ourselves,” said Hunsicker, looking back. “Back in that era, being in the military was not a popular thing. It left a lot of people with a lot of scars. [This race] was a way to heal themselves and help a child.”
Hunsicker asked Callahan, a former prosecutor and common pleas judge, to encourage the All-American Soap Box Derby to approve the National Super Kids Classic at Derby Downs.
In 2003, their wish was granted on a trial basis. Five years later, the number of participating cities, which send local disabled champions to Akron each year, had doubled to more than 50. Today, disabled children from all across the country participate, some driving down from Canada.
“We’ve kind of made it a pilgrimage over the years,” said Todd Hendricks, who drove his family from Indianapolis to watch his son Michael, 13, compete in the race Friday.
“It’s great,” his wife, Missy Hendricks, said.
The two peered over the starting line and down the 989-foot track beyond the finish line where Michael’s sisters helped their brother out of the derby car and into a shuttle van that brought him back topside for his second heat in a double-elimination competition.
As the family walked over to meet their children, Mike Callahan Jr. lined up another two-seater for the next team of co-pilot and Super Kid.
Callahan Jr., a senior at St. Vincent St. Mary High School, doesn’t volunteer because his father is the president.
“It’s labor, but he doesn’t really have to ask me to come out here,” he said as sweat rolled down his face.
“Just seeing the kids’ faces when they go down the hill makes it all worth it,” said Revere senior Vince Ede, one of Callahan Jr.’s three friends who helped out.
Most of the cars they lugged back and forth were constructed locally at Kenmore High School using parts welded together at a career tech program at East High School.
Along the side of each car is a sponsorship decal purchased for $500. Along with donations and sponsorships, Callahan Sr. said the group holds annual golf outings, spaghetti dinners, raffles and other fundraisers.
The proceeds pay for a barbecue and picnic on Thursday and hotel rooms for each of the 67 contestants and their families during their stay in Akron. The group tries to keep costs low, accepting a smile from a happy kid as compensation.
“It’s an all-volunteer organization and we operate on shoestrings. But somehow we manage every year,” Callahan Sr. said.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.