Carol Biliczky

The All-American Soap Box Derby is getting a financial shot in the arm from FirstEnergy, but isn’t saying how much.


The power company and youth racing organization announced Wednesday that the Akron-based company would be the title sponsor for the next three years.


Neither the derby nor the power company are required by law to disclose the size of the gift.


“Things are awesome,” derby President Joe Mazur said. “I’ve never seen so much potential in an organization in my life. It is a new world for the derby.”


Mazur paints a picture of a nonprofit that is coming back from the brink of financial disaster spawned by the lack of title sponsors and a decline in both sponsor cities and racers.


Mazur said he is concentrating on building an income stream in educational programs that teach derby fundamentals – and it is working.


Over the last year, for instance, the Akron-based derby has sold 80 percent more kit cars than in the previous year.


Middle and high schools in 11 states bought 250 kit cars to teach math and science fundamentals through car construction.


Mazur hopes the students will use the cars to hold races in their own cities to funnel winners to the All-American championship held every summer in Akron.


The derby is launching a similar program in which kindergartners through second- graders build simple “mini” cars that are 6 inches long. One-hundred-fifty prototype minis are in Akron Public Schools now, Mazur said.


The derby is developing a curriculum to turn this into a “feeder” program that propels children into derby racing when they become adolescents.


At the same time, the number of race cities has grown by 11 to 140 over the last year; 20 other cities have inquired, Mazur said.


A full-time events manager, Martina Yurish, has been hired to “nurture” inquiries and build participation. A full-time marketing manager, Rita Russo, also joined the organization this year.


Mazur said he has reshuffled responsibilities in the office since he came on board last March and the number of employees remains the same.


In the next month, he will announce plans for the 75th anniversary of the All-American race this summer.


This will include a return to a parade in downtown Akron and a new attraction: a live lane and heat draw to determine who races whom on the live derby hill.


But Mazur keeps many financial details close to his chest.


The derby lost money in the year ending in September, he said, but he doesn’t want to say how much because the results still are being audited.


He said he expects this year’s income to grow to $1.5 million from the $1.1 million of last year. The derby should turn a modest profit of $50,000, he said. Proceeds from the partnership in Corbin Bernsen’s movie about the derby, 25 Hill, remain at $150,000.


As for FirstEnergy’s contribution, it “is very good.” But the company doesn’t want to disclose the size, Mazur said.


In the past, derby sponsors typically paid $250,000 to buoy marketing public relations efforts. The last title sponsor, jeans-maker Levi Strauss Signature, pulled out in 2007.


Derby, civic and corporate officials hailed the new sponsorship as a step in the right direction at the media event Wednesday at Derby Downs at Akron-Fulton International Airport.


The power company is “doing its part to keep a tradition alive for future generations,” FirstEnergy President Anthony Alexander said.


Other companies should follow FirstEnergy’s lead, Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic told about 100 people assembled for the announcement.


Sponsoring the derby is a “good, sound investment,” the mayor said.


Three area teens raced down Derby Downs to smash through the first “FirstEnergy All-American Soap Box Derby” banner.


The derby’s 2010 world champion, Megan Gongaware of Perry Township, won the race. Siblings Aaron and Jessica Rathbun of Akron came in second and third, respectively.


Carol Biliczky can be reached at cbiliczky@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3729.