LFD And Emma Surprise Me Again - The Soap Box Derby

Emma Kochler gets ready to give the Lakewood Fire Deparment car a run down the track against Victor VanRoy in the car run by The Trademan Taven in Parma.

Last week Fire Chief Tim Dunphy and I were talking at the funeral for ……….. he mentioned to me that he would be busy this weekend tending to the Lakewood Fire Department’s Soap Box Derby car. I exclaimed, “What!” He went on to describe how the Lakewood Fire Department had gotten involved with Soap Box Derby cars about 5 years ago, and they love it.

I can see why Fire Chief Dunphy and crew would love it, from the Soap Box Derby website… “The Soap Box Derby is an international non-profit organization whose mission is to build knowledge, character, and create meaningful experiences through collaboration and fair and honest competition." It is everything being a Lakewood Fire Department member is all about.

I mentioned to Chief Dunphy that I loved motorsports having been involved for years around the world with racing. He mentioned their driver was a young girl named Emma KK and I chuckled and mentioned back in the 80s I had a young woman named Mary Kaczor from Chicago driving for us in Formula Opel and Formal 3 over in Europe. It was nice to see people giving women a break into motor racing and the entry levels. I had no idea what was in store for me.

So I arrived at the beautiful Cleveland Soap Box Derby track that runs alongside the Westbound lane of the Shoreway on Whiskey Island. The track built during the Mayor Mike White years gets a lot of use. For a long period of time it was sponsored by Jon Baruth, a name many Lakewoodites would know. Jon ran a Circus promotion office in Lakewood that employed hundreds of teenagers from 1970-1980. He was also the original manager for the “Dead Boys” that at one time all worked for him in Lakewood. Jon passed away last year.

So as I arrive at the track, I stop and look over the railing. It is laid out very nicely. I drive in past the gates and head into the Paddock area. This weekend I was supposed to be down taking photos of Indy Cars at Mid-Ohio, but with COVID-19, no one outside of Indy Car was allowed in. So this will have to suffice. Again, I was not prepared for the eye opener I was about to see.

The paddock look like most racing paddocks, trailers, motorhomes, and cars. Some of the cars and drivers from as far away as California. The Soap Box Derby has 13 zones. To become a National Rally Champion you must travel to at least three zones scoring points. If you reach a certain amount, you are awarded Rally Champion. This accounts for so many cars and drivers from around the country.

All-American Soap Box Derby has three divisions, The Stock division is for kids ages 7 through 13. The Super Stock division is for kids ages 9 through 18. The Masters division is for kids ages 10 through 20.  So there is really a chance for all to get involved. The family friendly atmosphere also reminded me of an SCCA paddock where people shared everything from tools to tires, from how to drive the track to where to stay in town. I was really starting to feel at home and enjoy this.

While I was there to see Emma Kochler, and the Lakewood Fire Department car, I walked around the paddock talking with parents and drivers. Finn David From Rocky River said, “I got into racing because of my sister who was already racing.” The I asked what was next, the 7-year-old smiled and said, “I am not really sure, I want to see how this year goes first!” Emma Kochier started because her father was a Lakewood Fireman and they were looking for a driver. “I thought it might be fun to drive the car.” When I asked if it was, she smiled from ear to ear and said “YES!”

Now, all of you are thinking cute kiddie sport, not serious here. You would be as wrong as I was. Most of the races had finishes of less than 1/2 a second. Actually closer to hundredths than tenths. Also the track is used equally with drivers making runs on each side of the track to be fair.

Now let’s talk about these so called kiddie runs! Imagine, if you will, a hill steep enough to get your old red wagon going 30 miles per hour. A red wagon has basically the same set-up. Only these cars are wood and fiberglass, and driven with pull cables. All of which while the driver, sometimes 11 years from driving a road car, is keeping low in the car, looking out of a 1/4” space for their eyes, going down a track that moved up and down and has crowns, cracks and bumps. All of this within steel armco barriers, and competing against a person your age. It has to be terrifying at first.

Drivers love it. They really develop great pride and a friendly competitive attitude that is missing in the world these days. I can see why and how families get hooked. Relatively inexpensive, channels all sorts of energy and thought process. Takes place outside, and everyone there is a pleasure to be around. I am surprised there are not more boys doing it. That’s right, the second eye-opener, a majority of this weekend’s racers were girls. Wait, not just girls, Championship driving girls in a class that contains both men and women. Straight up fair competition no matter the sex, the age, the background. This is getting to be more fun than I have had at a track for decades.

Well as the races wore on and the sun started to set, I went and said goodbye to Lakewood Fire Chief Dunphy and Emma Kochler. The car was beautifully turned out, and while Emma finished seventh in her class, she got a couple heat wins during the afternoon. And this underlines yet again the secret of the Soap Box Derby, everyone can join, everyone can compete and everyone can win. What a great family event.

To see all the photos from the day CLICK HERE: Soap Box Derby Photo Gallery

To see the video of some of the races CLICK HERE: Soap Box Derby Video

Jim O'Bryan

Publisher, Lakewood Observer, Inc.

Read More on Kid's Corner
Volume 16, Issue 19, Posted 4:33 PM, 09.16.2020