How did they end up at the top of Derby Downs? The stories vary by racer.
For some, the All-American Soap Box Derby is in their blood. They are following the footsteps of their parents or siblings who participated in Akron’s famous race.
For others, it was the thrill of zooming down the hill. And for a few, it started as a lark.
But all of the 18 Akron-area kids competing in today’s FirstEnergy All-American Soap Box Derby share a common goal — to finish first.
Portage County race director Kelly Heritage needed one more racer to make the masters competition happen this year.
He asked Travis Adkins, a stock champion from the year before, to be the sixth racer.
Heritage along with Travis and his dad, Dave, pieced together a car kit in six weeks.
After a “lot of late nights,” the car was finished on inspection day in mid-June.
“It was tight,” Heritage said.
Masters vehicles are tailored to each racer. Foot padding is adjusted. Steering handles are slid forward or back.
“You’re lucky if you find another kid who will fit in that car,” Heritage said.
Then came race day.
“His first race, he got smoked,” Dave Adkins said.
That would be the last race Travis would lose, earning him a spot in today’s All-American race.
Travis, 13, a freshman at Bio-Med Science Academy in Rootstown, has three siblings and they all race.
“It’s a lot of work with one kid,” Dave Adkins says. “It’s a lot more work with four.”
Heritage said he is “tickled to death” with the level of involvement from this derby family.
“It’s a family sport,” Heritage says. “That’s what the derby encourages.”
Cuyahoga Falls High School student and rally master champion Freddy Atchison, 14, is no stranger to the All-American race. Today is his third run at the title in as many years.
“Fast Freddy” is following in his older sister Osta’s footsteps. She raced five times in the All-American, placing second in her last race.
An eight-year veteran of rally races, Freddy grew up playing under the bleachers between derby heats.
“When I first started, it was kind of exciting to be at the starting gate,” Freddy said. “Now I kind of just want to get down the hill and see who wins.”
Derby racing for the Aull family is a no-brainer. The Akron-centered sport was a logical thing to do.
“You do the stuff that’s there,” father Joe Aull said.
Aull, an engineer for Goodyear, moved from Texas to Ohio in 1990.
In Texas, it was rodeos and roundups. In Ohio, it’s camping, canoeing, the Pro Football Hall of Fame and, of course, the All-American Soap Box Derby.
The family took a trip to Derby Downs in August 2010 to attend a rally race. It didn’t take long to see the excitement on his daughter’s face.
With her father’s help, Haley was building her own stock car less than three weeks later. She finished seventh in the Akron Suburban race last year and first this year.
Even with the countless hours of manipulating steering wires and adjusting wheels, the Green High School student, 14, admits that a “little luck” got her this far.
Michael Becenti is no stranger to Derby Downs.
As a child, he watched his sister participate in the big race three times and his mother competed, too.
But the Copley High School student, 16, admits it is a bit intimidating sitting atop the big hill — even if it’s just a trial run for today’s race. His first trip down the hill was eventful.
Michael said a problem with his car’s back axle almost made him lose control.
“The car just went crazy right,” he said.
The car has been repaired, Michael said, all he has to do now is “drive straight.”
Katherine “Katie” Dudones has a tattoo of a sea anchor on her foot. It is for her brother, who is in the U.S. Navy.
“It’s really special because it means a lot,” Katie said. The sea anchor also adorns her super stock car, which is painted red, white and blue.
Katie, 17, didn’t have to look far for a role model while growing up. Her brother raced before her, and she always has admired him.
“He never gave up, and he always went for his dreams,” Dudones said.
Katie is a senior at Coventry High School.
She plans on following her brother once again after she graduates by enlisting in the U.S. Navy.
Last year, she was a rally champion. This year, she is the Akron local champ.
While she’s “super psyched” for today, the event is bittersweet.
“I’m really sad that this is my last year,” she said. Race eligibility ends at 17 years old.
In 2011, Crestwood Middle School student Jacquie Deuley, 13, finished second in her first try at a local derby race.
This year, the Mantua teen won the local stock division and grabbed a coveted spot in today’s race.
Jacquie’s mother, Jeanne Deuley, said the one word that describes her daughter is “determined.”
“She’s determined to succeed,” she said.
Jacquie runs track, is on the wrestling team and also plays softball. She said the most important thing to remember as a racer is to not “crash into the other people.”
Laura Geer’s father, Steve, says his daughter has been nagging him to get her into the derby since she was 6 years old. Laura says she’s been hearing about the derby from her father since she was 4 years old.
The family has been visiting Derby Downs for 35 years. Steve raced there in 1977 and 1978 when he crashed after a steering cable loosened.
Now 16, Laura will face off in the master’s competition, racing a sleek, black car with fluorescent orange and purple thunderbolts streaking down the side. On each side, it reads “2012 Akron Area Rally Champ.”
This isn’t her first time in the finals, though. The Tallmadge High School junior placed third in the stock division in 2009.
“Throughout the years, I’ve made more and more friends,” Laura said.
There’s only one drawback to the All-American, according to Andy Getz. The stock car that his daughter drives has to be decaled and not painted.
His daughter Stephanie was introduced to the sport through a paint job. In 2008, a veteran racer walked into Andy Getz’s North Canton business, Getz’s Body Shop, to look for some ideas for a car.
Stephanie, who attends North Canton Middle School, is racing the 13th car they have built. They tweaked it a bit to fit her small frame.
“I’m nervous because there are so many people there,” Stephanie said, “but excited because it’s my first time at the All-American.”
Emily Harmon has trouble keeping track of all her cousins who race derby cars. Somewhere between 10 and 20, she figures.
“It’s a big thing in our family,” Emily said.
The family has been racing since the 1960s.
Her sister had an unsuccessful run in the All-American in 2007. Her cousin Ashley Wilp finished in third place in 2005. But no one from the family has ever won it all.
That’s something Emily, 16, who attends Cuyahoga Falls High School, hopes to change today as she lines up as a rally masters champion from Silver Lake.
This year, she’s racing for her grandfather, one of the pioneer racers in the family.
Her masters car is blue with clouds and one distinct figure: Winnie the Pooh. Winnie the Pooh is her “thing,” Emily says.
Andrew and Blake Johnson
It wasn’t Andrew “Drew” Johnson’s idea to build a stock car and race it downhill. A friend of Drew’s father suggested the idea two years ago.
“I didn’t know if I was going to like it,” said Drew, 12.
In his first run in a race in Portage County last year, the Ravenna boy wiped out.
But what a rush it was.
“The wind is blowing in your face, there is stuff in your eyes,” he said of Akron’s track.
“You have to know what to do, how to keep it in the center of the lane,” Drew said. “It’s a workout.”
His brother will agree.
At 8 years old, Blake “The Snake” Johnson is one of the youngest champions competing in the derby. He attends Brimfield Elementary School.
Blake had to wait until his birthday in October to join big brother Drew on the rally circuit. His first time in a car was scary, he said. He hit dividers that defined the lanes.
That didn’t stop him from getting right back in the car.
“I like to watch the races, see how they race so I can do what they do,” Blake said.
The first time Trinity Kubick let gravity take her to the bottom of Derby Downs, she got a little nervous looking at the finish line from atop the 954-foot track.
“I loved it,” she said.
Two years later, Trinity, 10, of Cuyahoga Falls, will take her place at the top of the hill during the rally stock championship today.
Next to her at the starting gate will be her car handler, known to Trinity as “Pop-Pop.” For Soap Box Derby enthusiasts, he is better known as Jeff Iula, the former general manager of the derby.
Trinity earned her right to race in the All-American by winning the metro race stock division for racers ages 7 to 13. Besides her grandfather, her mother, Carrie Kubick, and her aunt competed in the big race. Her great-grandfather, Ralph Iula, ran the Akron race for 20 years.
When she climbs in the car, Trinity said: “I just focus on the yellow line.”
A student at Summit Christian Academy, Trinity said she once crashed into the guardrail.
“I thought something bad was going to happen to the car, and now I know it’s not that bad,” she said.
Melanie Long’s father stood at the bottom of Derby Downs in 1990, holding a roll of duct tape to repair his daughter’s car in case she crashed.
The Akronite raced again in 1991 and 1993, but she never made it to the All-American, the sport’s premiere event.
Still, she’ll probably never get rid of the two derby cars in her garage.
Instead, she’s made room for one more — for her own daughter.
Kayley Long is returning to Derby Downs for the second year. She earned a ticket to the big race last year after a local championship win.
But she didn’t fare well.
“Down and out,” she says, motioning over the hill. She lost her first heat and had to wait a year for a second chance.
This year, the seventh-grader from Springfield schools is entering the All-American after a series of points-based rally races. She hopes to finish in at least the top nine.
At 12 years old, she has five more years to chase the championship. And her mother has no doubt that she will race until she’s 17.
“She has no fear,” Melanie Long said.
Portage County super stock champion Madison Neer, 11, won her division in her second try.
Maddie, a sixth-grader at James A. Garfield Middle School, was coaxed to compete by her dad who raced when he was younger, and her uncles, who are involved in motor sports.
Her first contest was the 2011 Portage County local race, where her brake line broke on a trial run and she finished fourth overall.
This year, Maddie won the race behind the wheel of a car she built with her dad. It’s painted yellow, with “Badgirl Maddie” painted on the side.
Her grandfather picked the name.
“He thought I would be faster and have more confidence,” she said.
This is the fourth year competing in gravity races for Nicholas “Nick” Probst, 12, of Jackson Township.
The Jackson Middle School student made it to the All-American once before but lost in his first heat.
He started racing at the urging of his grandfather, Tim Probst. His first time in the starting gate, Nick was a little nervous.
“I was happy I made it down safely,” he said.
Sitting at Topside, waiting for the whoosh that means the cars have been released, is his favorite part.
“I want to get first, second or third,” he said.
Nicole Stout was 6 years old when she knew she belonged in a derby car.
She and her father, Larry, visited Chapel Hill Mall where they looked over a derby flier.
At the time, racers had to be 8 years old to compete. So Nicole stuffed the flier in a locker in her closet where she kept all the things that were important.
A week before her eighth birthday, she took it out.
“I came downstairs and said ‘I can do it now,’ ” Nicole recalls.
She’s 17 now, and in her last year of eligibility.
She walks the track with her No. 1 car and people say, “What’s your name?” The “01” decal on her car draws attention. The number is given to the prestigious winner of the Akron local.
The Nordonia High School senior met her boyfriend at a racetrack in Owensboro, Ky. When she graduates, she wants to design race cars and earn a motorsports engineering degree.
And she’s come a long way since her first race in 2003 or her first win in Buffalo in 2007.
Her dad jokes about how naive the two were.
“We showed up with our big giant ski goggles,” Larry says, “Not a clue what we were doing.”
Race week is great, said Fairlawn’s Christian Viering, 12, a stock division racer and rally champion, because you get to meet people from all over the world.
“The most exciting thing is racing against your friends, and meeting new friends,” Christian said.
For many racers, the key to victory is a well-made car, weights in the right place, and a well-trained driver.
Christian credits a bit of luck for his chance to race against the sport’s elite racers.
“It’s really just luck going down, because it doesn’t really matter who you’re racing, it’s a matter of the lane and the wheels,” he said.
The Copley-Fairlawn Middle School student decided to compete after racing in a derby car during Corbin Bernsen’s filming of 25 Hill at Derby Downs.
“They had these trial runs where you can go down in one, and when I went down in one, I told my mom I really wanted to do this,” he said.
Elyssa Zablo gave up a lot for her derby car.
She had to be nice to her three siblings. She had to maintain a good attitude and complete all her chores. And she had to get better marks in school.
For Elyssa, the car was “motivation.” For her stepfather Todd Guilliam, it was the experience of a lifetime.
“I’ve seen their lives change. All these kids,” said Guilliam, who is also a derby board member.
Guilliam wouldn’t let his stepdaughter participate in the derby without sacrifice.
“It’s not Saturday afternoon soccer,” Guilliam told Elyssa.
The work on the 14-year-old Revere student’s car began two years ago.
“It’s like you’re sitting on a giant roller blade,” she said.
Elyssa’s name streaks down the side of her metallic blue car. She pointed to a hole in the floorboard, just to the right of the kingpin. She earned that hole the hard way, she said.
Derby officials drilled the hole to signify that she placed high enough in 13 races this year to qualify as a rally champion.
“When you make it to the All-American,” Elyssa says, “you appreciate it, because you [might not] come back.”