Drivers in the 76th annual FirstEnergy All-American Soap Box Derby had more than the competition to contend with this year.
“This is the twentieth time it’s rained in 76 years. But we’ve still never been rained out,” said derby historian Jeff Iula.
From around the country and parts of the world, 428 racers represented their hometowns Saturday.
While the stands remained largely barren under the rain clouds and drizzle, family and friends who traveled with each racer huddled beneath tents set up on both sides of the 989-foot track at Derby Downs.
Winners were Jay Warnick, 16, of Washington D.C. in the local masters and Melanie Kohout, 16, of Geneva, Ill., in the rally masters. Bryce Volpe, 14, of Cleveland won the local super stock and two-time champion Ricky Desens, 14, of Webster, N.Y., took first in the rally super stock. Macaila Ziolkowski, 13, of McKeesport, Pa. won the local stock and Erin Donovan, 9, of Eagleville, Pa., took the rally stock division. The Super Kids winner was Kyle Bolen of Charleston, W.Va
Leaning against the fence at the finish line, Iula sported a poncho and an antique race hat – adorned with a soap box derby paint job – that kept the rain off his face.
Standing nearby was longtime friend Fred “Freddy” Mohler, a derby champ from 1953, one of the few years to have a rain delay.
Mohler lives in Muncie, Ind., and has attended 53 of the past 60 All-Americans in Akron. And he’s no stranger to the relentless rain that kept many fans indoors or under tents.
As the parade marshal for Saturday’s event, Mohler – who has been fighting cancer — drove what could be his last trip down the hill. He raced in Lane 1, where he won the gold 60 years ago.
He faced another old time champ, 1935 winner John Hamels.
Hamels, 90, beat out Mohler, 74.
“It was fun,” said Mohler, his head poking out of a trash bag draped over his shoulders.
That same sentiment kept racers’ spirits up as the rain continued to fall.
“I usually do it all the time,” Ravenna Super Stock Champion Jay Moore said of racing in the rain.
The 13-year-old and his sister, who also raced Saturday, have seen worse.
“This is nothing compared to the cold rain in the spring,” their mother Sherri Moore said.
While some riders had trouble negotiating water building up at the bottom as the track leveled out, others welcomed the slick speedway.
“Sometimes it’s faster because there’s less friction,” Moore said before hopping in his super stock car.
While the rain might have prevented locals from attending on Saturday, it forced volunteers to pick up the pace as folks hurried through each heat before the weather took a turn for the worse.
“Racing against the rain this year,” volunteer Leo Costello said of the accelerated pace.
After each heat, Costello circled the winning car numbers, advancing each through the brackets until only nine remained in each of six divisions.
One of those racers, 15-year-old Haley Aull of Akron, summed up the excitement and anticipation of being so close to victory.
“It’s awesome,” the city champ said, standing next to her father.
In her third year racing, Haley gets a little further each year. Last year, she was the local super stock champ, but she didn’t make it to the finals. This year, she won the local Akron masters, earning her the coveted No. 1 car.
She eventually finished third among 57 drivers in her division. No Akron champ took home the gold this year.
“It’s kind of a record that Akron didn’t win this year,” Iula said.
Akron took 16 gold medals in the local competition. More than any other participating city. And it’s been awhile since they haven’t won.
“This year, they finally didn’t win after seven years in a row,” Iula said.
Saturday, the culmination of race week at Derby Downs, is actually a combination of six races at the All-American Soap Box Derby.
There are three divisions. In ascending order of age, weight and speed, they are stock, super stock and master.
Each division is then broken into rally and local races. The rally contestants have earned at least 180 points over the course of the year. Local contestants gained entry by taking home the gold in one of more than 300 high-stakes races held in dozens of cities across the country.
Racers competed for $30,000 in scholarship money. Racers ranged in ages from 7 to 17 and they came from the U.S., Canada, Japan and New Zealand.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or email@example.com.