When the first Gravity Racing Challenge took place at Derby Downs in 2010, two teams participated.
On Saturday, there were more than 90. And the growth of the event may provide a long-term boost to the FirstEnergy All-American Soap Box Derby.
The challenge had teams from local schools (elementary through high school) building and racing vehicles designed to derby specifications, with an eye on improving education via the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) initiative.
The challenge addressed the STEM concept in broader ways, too, with displays by organizations like the Kent-based Corsair Model Aircraft Club and the Ohio Technology and Engineering Educators Association offering young people opportunities to get hands-on experience in building and design.
To be sure, a big attraction by Corsair was a tent of laptop computers and flight simulators that were getting repeat visitors unmoved by the sunny day and the racers speeding down the derby hill.
But pretending to fly might be a way to get young people interested in the radio-controlled aircraft that Corsair also displayed — not to mention the adjacent setup by the Aero Design Team of the University of Akron Society of Automotive Engineering, whose award-winning aircraft demonstrated what young people could put together.
For the International Soap Box Derby, which hosts the challenge and runs the All-American, the Gravity Racing Challenge also provides a way to bring new participants, fans and sponsors into derby racing. AAA and the architectural- engineering firm GPD Group are partners in the challenge.
The crowd at Saturday’s event was a clear improvement over the numbers attending some local derby races in recent years.
Joe Mazur, derby president, said the organization has been taking several steps to introduce young, would-be racers. The Gravity Racing Challenge is one. Another is the offering of miniature-car kits, which can get children as young as 4 thinking about designing and building their own racer.
RaDonna Mair, a first-grade teacher at Hatton Elementary School who also works with the after-school enrichment program, said the after-school students started working with miniatures before going on to work on full-size racers.
This year the school had four racers in the challenge. They started with two a year ago, then added two more, who were inherited from Barrett Elementary after that school closed in 2012.
Of course, kids don’t necessarily look at this as an educational opportunity. When Mair asked her Hatton group what they liked best about the challenge, one piped up, “Winning a trophy!”
Hatton had just won in the stock division with Tallmadge Middle School placing second, followed by Russia Local Schools in Shelby County and then Summit Academy. Springfield High School won the super stock division, followed by Lorain County Joint Vocational School, Tallmadge Middle School and Notre Dame School in Portsmouth.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture and other topics for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Onine blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.