Since the moment Julie Hooks adopted Zachary when he was just 3 years old, she had never seen him smile.

Like many kids who have autism, with which Zachary was recently diagnosed, he had a difficult time using emotional expressions growing up.

That all changed, though, when he raced in the Greater Houston Soap Box Derby in his hometown back in May.

“The first time we saw Zachary smile was when he won his first trophy,” Hooks said, beaming herself.

And on Friday, the Hooks family was in Akron for more smiles as Zachary, now 12, competed in the National Super Kids Classic, a derby race in which kids with special needs race in a two-person derby car alongside a co-pilot.

Zachary was among more than 70 racers who came from across the continent to compete, which is “real close to a record,” said Mike Callahan, the president of the Super Kids Classic.

For kids like Zachary, the experience of coming to Akron alone has been enjoyable.

“I like all the trees,” Zachary said. “It’s beautiful.”

Of course, the fun lies in flying down the hill, when the kids are free to enjoy the ride while their counterparts take care of the steering and braking.

“When the people cheered me on, it felt good,” Zachary said. “I like going down that hill.”

After experiencing the excitement of racing, Zachary and his father have worked together to build a one-person car, which he is now trying to learn how to race by himself back at home.

“When he won that trophy, he was like a new kid,” Hooks said. “We wouldn’t miss this for anything.”

The Super Kids derby brings out the best in more than just the kids.

For years, Salem, Ore., has hosted regular rallies and races at its downtown-centric track. In the past few years, though, money has been too tight to send any contenders to the championship.

That is, until this year, when a passer-by stumbled across the track. Jim Youngers, the derby region director in Salem, said after he explained the financial situation, the anonymous onlooker asked how much money he needed to take the champs to the national competition.

That money allowed Youngers to bring 15-year-old Sean Kuga to Akron, along with 10 others racing Saturday who cheered for Kuga as he zoomed down the hill with his head tucked down, as the kids are instructed to do to make the car more aerodynamic.

“He’s really good at it and knows what he’s supposed to do,” said Sean’s father, Mark Kuga, from Silverton, Ore. Sean has Down syndrome, so Kuga said he has speech difficulties, but competing in derbies opens him up to more people.

“You don’t even have to ask why we do it when you hear stories like that,” Callahan said.

The final six competitors from Friday, including Kuga, will move on to race in Saturday’s All-American Soap Box Derby, where one will be declared the Super Kids champion.

Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216 or tcottom@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @Theresa_Cottom.