Joe Mazur spent years managing Cleveland State’s Wolstein Center. That was “a walk in the park,” compared to running the All-American Soap Box Derby.
For the last 16 months, Mazur, the derby’s president and chief executive, has been working to bring the Akron nonprofit back from the edge. It has not been easy.
“We’ve stopped the bleeding,” he said.
The gravity-powered racing program for youths and teens will celebrate its 75th season beginning today with a parade from Canal Park Stadium to Lock 3 in downtown Akron for a community festival.
On Saturday, about 450 youths will compete in the All-American — by no means a record attendance and not even an increase over last year.
But the derby is heading in the right direction, board Chairman Bill Ginter said.
He applauds Mazur’s “unflagging enthusiasm” in juggling events, crises, funding problems, staffing and communications.
“We’ll be talking on the phone about strategy about something and at the same time he’s flipping burgers to feed volunteers,” Ginter said. “He’s personally very competitive.”
Mazur, a 47-year-old Richfield resident, left a regional vice president’s job at the convention management firm SMG in March 2011 to join the youth racing organization. He recruited FirstEnergy to a three-year stint as sponsor — the first time since 2007 the derby has had one.
He declines to provide the size of the gift, but that donation unlocked the door for other contributions from foundations and companies.
Mazur restaffed the office with new employees, brought in students and interns and worked to restore morale among volunteers who thought the Akron office was turning a deaf ear to their issues.
Asking for opinions
Derek Fitzgerald, a director of the competing National Derby Rallies, says he was thrilled when Mazur asked him for his opinion about what was wrong with the derby.
“He picked up the phone and called me,” Fitzgerald, of Sharon, Pa., said with a touch of amazement. “For that, my hat is off to him. We’ve never had this kind of communication before.”
Fitzgerald’s view is that the Soap Box Derby was losing its luster because its purse had not kept pace with the times. Winners have not received new cars or full scholarships since Chevy ran the show in the 1970s.
That probably wasn’t what Mazur wanted to hear. He couldn’t manufacture money.
But he got Goodyear to donate, bringing the scholarships for the top winners in the three divisions to $5,000 — double what they were the previous year.
He also has tried to resolve long-standing issues that racers and their families have with the derby car kits they buy for about $700 from the Akron nonprofit.
Families had been complaining for years that the shells hadn’t been cut the right way, so Mazur met with the manufacturer. It was a simple fix, saving families the chore of jury-rigging the shell to fit.
“Some of the changes that we made were common sense. No-brainers and easy,” Mazur said.
He also has worked to build an educational program in which students construct derby cars in class to learn math and engineering, with spectacular results.
The number of cars in classrooms jumped from two in Akron last year to 250 in 12 states today. That fuels sales of derby cars and introduces more potential racers to the sport.
Catering to families
He has tried to retool Derby Week — the five days leading up to the championship race — to make it more family-friendly.
He got Rent-A-Center to provide refrigerators, TVs and other items under a tent to keep the young racers cool and to give them something to do. The refrigerators will be stocked with 1,500 Popsicles courtesy of Aldi. Parents and racers also will be able to work on derby cars for the first time under a tent.
And families, who usually hunker down at Topside to get their racer down the hill, will for the first time be able to watch practice runs via webcasts.
“He has really got his ear to the families,” said derby volunteer Leon Hershburger of Wooster, who perused the line of colorful cars being examined by derby officials last week. “He’s trying a number of new things that will be family- friendly.”
Still, the derby has yet to turn around fully.
Mazur optimistically had predicted the derby would be “cash neutral” by the end of last year, but it lost about $50,000, he said last week.
Actor Corbin Bernsen’s derby-themed movie 25 Hill provided a jolt of national attention that brought the derby a total of $150,000 in 2010 and 2011, but that’s over now unless the movie makes money. This year, Mazur expects to make a profit of just $17,000 on income of $1.3 million, an increase of 20 percent over the previous year’s revenue.
To build income for coming years, Mazur aims to develop a “turnkey” package that fledgling race directors can lease to get new races or rallies off the ground.
Currently, starting races is a challenge, as organizers must come up with their own stop watches, ramps, trailers and the like.
Mazur also has made some missteps among what Ginter, the chairman, has dubbed “Derby Nation.”
One father complained on Fitzgerald’s Zero Defects Co. website — a meeting place for derby aficionados — that Mazur was selling championship sweatshirts on the nonprofit’s website.
“I immediately thought this was a terrible idea, and both of my daughters, separately and without prompting, looked up in dismay and say, ‘No way! Those have to be earned!’ ” RMAC wrote.
He emailed Mazur that “selling [the sweatshirts] would diminish the accomplishments of all who have worn them.”
The next thing RMAC knew, the derby had pulled the sweatshirts off its website.
Mazur said he didn’t realize the winners thought so highly of derby garb. This year, to raise money and get rid of extra champ T-shirts and sweatshirts, he will allow winners — and winners only — to buy extra gear.
“I think Joe got it,” RMAC wrote.
Carol Biliczky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3729.