The 75th running of the FirstEnergy All-American Soap Box Derby has gotten national attention, including a visit from CBS Sunday Morning.
A report by Rita Braver, a senior correspondent for the program, is scheduled to air Sunday — locally at 9 a.m. on WOIO (Channel 19). (But segments sometimes get bumped because of other news events, and the Colorado shootings occurred after Braver began work on the piece.)
She was in Akron on Tuesday and Wednesday, patrolling the very hot Derby Downs. “Our camera crew was amazing, running up and down the hill,” she said. “I don’t know how they did it, carrying their gear.”
If the segment airs as planned, the piece will run about six minutes — pretty long when you consider, as Braver pointed out, that she used to have to sum up White House doings in a minute and a half.
Braver was the network’s White House correspondent from 1993 to 1997, after which she joined the Sunday show, Her assignments vary; at any given point she has five or six stories in the works, with the current topics including not only the derby but same-sex marriage and some profiles of some “quite interesting” people she was not willing to identify yet.
Preparation time for some pieces is months, but the derby project has come together much more quickly (and Thursday afternoon Braver was just getting ready to write it).
In a phone interview, Braver said the 75th made for a good story for Sunday Morning and that the derby “is a great summer, all-American pastime, so we decided to take a look at it.”
While in town she interviewed derby contestants and their families, derby bard Corbin Bernsen, derby spokesman Bob Troyer and FirstEnergy CEO Tony Alexander.
“It’s alive and well, that’s for sure,” she said. “I just loved the experience of being there. And mainly because I felt like the kids were great, but the family interaction was terrific. That really was fun to see in this day and age when, so often, because of very busy schedules families are all going in different directions. And the amount of work that these kids put together with a family member, or at least a close family friend — is heartwarming, to use an old-fashioned phrase.”
Told that someone saw her with tears in her eyes, she said, “I don’t know if I was tearing up so much. But I was glad I went. … I was impressed, and I was touched, both.”
Braver said the CBS crew talked to a variety of people in different derby divisions. “One of the things that impressed me was how multigenerational it is” — that children and grandchildren of former derby competitors are now involved. One Pennsylvania family had parents who met racing, she said. Another competitor and his siblings are racing because their adoptive father raced.
And even as she talked to former winners, Braver said, the message seemed to be winning “is not why I’m doing it. ‘I’m doing it ’cause it’s fun, I like the other kids, I learned a lot about working on the car, I got to be with my parents — all kinds of things. …
“I think these kids feel they’re doing something special,” she said.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Twitter (@rheldenfels) and Facebook. He can be contacted at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.