CUYAHOGA FALLS: The Christmas gift Bill Duve unwrapped in December featured a couple of photos mounted to a board.
Pictures of his four grandsons had a quote bubble teasing: “Yo Papa! Do you know what time it is?”
The clue was the date — June 8 — at the bottom of the board. This Saturday. The day the Akron Area Soap Box Derby will decide which six champions will compete at the national All-American Soap Box Derby race July 27.
Duve’s grandsons are racing this year for the first time, extending a family tradition that started with Duve in the 1950s and continued in the 1970s and ’80s with his own children, Michael and Kristin.
Bill, Michael and Kristin never made it to the big show, but getting to the All-American isn’t really the point.
“It’s the opportunity to make a memory,” said Michael Duve, who recalled how much fun he had bonding with his dad and forming new friendships.
The family’s third-generation racers are Michael Duve’s sons Will, 9; and Evan, 8; and Kristin Schneckenburger’s boys Max, 10; and Alex, 7.
Bill Duve raced in the derby’s heyday, back when winners won cars and scholarships and tens of thousands of spectators filled the stands at Derby Downs in Akron.
He was about 5 years old when the bug bit him. He remembers watching his brother, Joe, marching in the All-American parade as an Eagle Scout.
“I told my dad, ‘I don’t want to be a scout. I want to race in the derby,’ ” he said.
He didn’t have to twist his dad’s arm. As soon as young Bill was old enough, his dad started taking him to derby clinics and helping him build his car.
Bill Duve raced for five years, starting in 1954. He never made it to the All-American, but is proud to have made it to third in the local Akron race.
When Duve and his wife, Carol, had their son Michael, the shadow of the derby cast itself over the family once more.
Michael, who was juggling several sports, gave up playing baseball to make room for it. His best finish in the local derby was fourth, but his parents also took him around the country to participate in rallies.
When the Duves’ daughter, Kristin, came of age, she joined the rally circuit.
“We spent a lot of quality time together,” Michael Duve recalled.
It was the kind of quality time he wanted his children to experience.
So prior to last Christmas, Michael Duve told his sister, “The window is now, while the boys are [old enough] and Dad is still active enough to be part of it.”
After Bill Duve unwrapped his gift, he started hosting regular “clinics” for his grandkids at his Cuyahoga Falls home, where they worked on the cars throughout the winter.
Last week, they entered a rally race and got to sail down Derby Downs for the first time to get their feet wet.
“They called us the ‘plain team,’ ” chuckled Kristen Schneckenburger, because the boys’ cars — in the solid blue, red or white color that the kits came in — don’t have the embellishments many derby racers have accumulated.
After the rally, Bill Duve made adjustments to some of the cars, tightening a steering wheel here, adjusting a brake there.
He has done that a lot for other derby racers over the years. In his basement workshop, he has dozens of photos of not only himself and his children, but also of friends — some of whom made it to the All-American with his assistance.
Michael Duve said the derby is very different now than when he raced in the 1970s. He still made his own car back then. Today, all cars come from the same kits; but that’s a good thing, he said.
“The average Joe dad can have the time to get his kid in the derby,” he said. “They say the average car can be built in about six hours” — far less than the six months he spent fine-tuning his own racer.
Now the derby is less about the work and more about good times and friendships.
“Whatever happens, it’s going to be fun,” Michael Duve said.
This weekend is the 76th annual running of the Akron Area Soap Box Derby.
More than 75 racers will compete at Derby Downs in either Saturday’s “Metro” race for children in Akron, Cuyahoga Falls, Barberton and North Summit, or Sunday’s “Suburban” racing for kids elsewhere in Summit County as well as Stark and Medina counties.
From both groups, winners will be named in stock, super stock and masters divisions. Those winners will advance to the July national championships.