Dylan Swiatek, 10, races toward the finish line during the All-American Soap Box Derby, held on June 21 in Hamburg.
HAMBURG — The make and model of the race cars may be different, but the ambition and passion shown by youngsters behind the soap derby wheel has not changed all that much since its inception, according to Hamburg native and derby advocate Don Lucarell.
Lucarell brought the Annual Soap Box Derby event back to Hamburg in 2013, which took place on South Buffalo Street in the village. This year, June 21 marked the Second Annual All-American Soap Box Derby Derby with 14 participants ages 7-18 racing in a double-elimination showdown. Last year, 16 participants tried their hand at the derby track.
Melissa Haag and George Turner serve as co-race directors. The overall winner of Saturday’s competition, 11-year-old Danny O’Brien, moved on to the All-American Soap Box Derby World Championship, which will take place in Akron, Ohio on July 26. The winner of that race will receive a $5,000 college scholarship. The Akron event includes up to 700 entrants nationally, with three cars racing down lanes at once.
10-year-old Riley Lorkowski looks to see his finish time after racing down the track on June 21.
Hamburg has emerged as the localized municipality for the soap box derby, with Rochester and Jamestown being the other closest Western New York locales for soap box competition. A general halfway-point of race residency designates participants’ central racing area. There are 136 race entry municipalities nationally, and a national museum devoted to the soap box derby in Akron.
Participants Saturday included O’Brien, Marcus Aiello, who is Lucarell’s grandson; Joey Brooks; Miles Calloway, who is the grandson of longtime local soap box derby advocate Pete Calloway; Bryce Hand; Noah Kedge; Connor Lorkowski; Riley Lorkowski; Tyler McCluskey; Aidan Hart Nova; Chase Sadler; Kaitlin Sadler and Dylan Swiatek.
The Soap Box Executive Committee is comprised of Lucarell, Haag, Turner, Lucy Calloway, Jennifer Eckman, Julie Turner and Tracey Howard.
A young derby racer puts the pedal to the medal, during the All-American Soap Box Derby, held this past weekend.
The soap box derby locally dates back to the early 1930s, when Pete Calloway raced. Lucarell raced in 1946 in Buffalo, representing Hamburg. The centralized location moved from Buffalo to the Sheridan Drive and Bailey Avenue locations, and eventually back to Hamburg. Village of Hamburg Mayor Thomas Moses Jr. was described by Lucarell as being a big supporter of the derby. Lucarell said that he hopes that the event stays in Hamburg, although Haag added that anyone from the area is welcome to participate in the derby. There had been some discussion about moving the event to downtown Buffalo, although no official plan has yet been formalized.
A point system determines the winner of soap box derby races. Additionally, a special needs race takes place, as well as a speed challenge. Up to 50 cars can be accommodated in the overall event. Although the included ages are 7-18, racers of any age may be welcomed into the event in the future, according to organizers.
Hamburg’s Soap Box Derby Club meets monthly at Hamburg Town Hall and Library. For more information on the derby club, call 649-3977.
The design of soap box derby race cars has changed significantly, according to Lucarell, who noted that the former Courier-Express newspaper co-sponsored the event. Today, kit cars sponsored by various organizations/businesses have replaced the homemade cars from the 1940’s. The first soap box derby race took place in 1934. Although Lucarell appreciates the current racing modules, he still harkens back to the old days.
“Back then, the winner of the [derby] got a car,” said Lucarell at the event, watching racers navigate in their cars at speeds of about 25-30 miles per hour. “I feel like I was a winner just by being there. It was about building a car on your own.”
Girls were allowed into derby racing starting in the mid 1970s. Clinics are also offered for all racers, and inspections are performed on cars to ensure they meet safety guidelines. Modern soap box derby cars can weigh up to 200 pounds, with assembly including wiring breaks and steering mechanisms. Shells and floorboards are also provided to racers. It’s the individual determination of each racer, according to Lucarell, that is most essential.
“I’d like Marcus to be in [derby racing],” Lucarell said of his grandson, “But it’s up to him to decide if he wants to stick with it.”