Kids build racers, memories in Soap Box Derby

Thursday, June 11, 2009 | 7:53 p.m. CDT; updated 8:58 p.m. CDT, Thursday, June 11, 2009

Drills whine against screw heads. Hammers pound plywood. Wrenches click-clack as they fasten bolts. Sandpaper scratches against metal and wood.

Greg Schneider looks on while the sounds of tools working in unison fill the Downtown Optimists' Clubhouse off Grand Avenue. The club is set to hold its free Soap Box Derby from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday in downtown Columbia.

If You Go

What: 2009 Mid-Missouri Soap Box Derby

When: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, June 14

Where: Broadway between Seventh Street and Providence Road

Cost: Free

Schedule of Events:

10 a.m. Deaton v. Ritter

11 a.m.  Nauser v. Pearson

Noon Burton v. Carey

1 p.m. Ross v. Rothery

Rain date: June 21

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“Soap box is entirely different than soccer or baseball. Kids are trying to find their own individualities, and soap box offers that to some kids instead of traditional sports,” said Schneider, one of the race officials for 2009. “It’s definitely an empowering feeling.”

The derby puts all the emphasis on the driver. Cars are built from standardized kits that eliminate any advantages one driver might hold over another. With soap box, the tallest or strongest or quickest kid doesn’t win. Instead, the smartest driver takes home the trophy.

“This sport levels the playing field,” Schneider said. “We try and make it as fair as possible.”

The starting line is at the intersection of Seventh Street and Broadway. Broadway will be closed for the event from Seventh Street to Providence Road. In celebration of Flag Day, the first 500 children attending the races will receive free U.S. flags.

Thirty-two children are participating in this year’s event. Because the children will be racing gravity cars, which don’t have motors, they will start out on a ramp placed at Broadway and Seventh Street and race down the hill toward Providence Road.

There are three divisions children can compete in. The Stock Division is for racers 8 to 13 years old. The Super Stock and the Masters divisions are for racers aged 10 to 17. Winners from each division will go on to the world championships in Akron, Ohio.

Racers compete in dual heats in each division. After racing once, racers switch two wheels with their counterparts to ensure fairness and then race again. The winner is the racer with the fastest time. The derby is double-elimination, so a loss in the first race does not dash hopes of a soap box title.

The Mid-Missouri Soap Box Derby races in Columbia date back to 1938. Although there have been years where the derby did not take place, it has once again become an annual event in Columbia. The Downtown Optimist Club has co-sponsored the derby for nearly 50 years.

To keep the competition fair, the Downtown Optimist Club hosts numerous workshops in the months leading up to the derby. Construction questions can be answered and assurances given that cars meet regulation.

This was not the case at the World Championships in 1973. Jimmy Gronen, then 14, of Boulder, Colorado equipped the nose of his car with an electromagnetic device that, when triggered, gave him an enormous advantage over the competition. At the start of the race, Gronen triggered the magnet by leaning back on his headset, which was wired to the magnet. The magnet pulled towards the steel paddle used to start the race at the finish line.

Gronen's uncharacteristic margins of victory, ranging from 20 to 30 feet, tipped off race officials since standard margins range from one to three feet. Officials stripped him of his world title two days after the race.

Brock Williams, former soap box racer and owner of Brock’s Auto Body, was present at a recent workshop. Having once made soapbox memories of his own, Williams wants to create some for Columbia’s youth. In his seventh year as a sponsor, Williams has three cars in this year’s race.

“I got involved as a kid because I just liked cars,” Williams said. “I don’t have kids, so I try to get others involved. Kids aren’t ambitious these days. It makes me mad. Some parents don’t involve their kids in anything. This is something where I can involve them and keep them off the streets.”

“Brock got me learning about cars,” said Deontrae Stewart, a three-year veteran at age 10. “I like doing it a lot.”

Thomas Waggoner, 14, is a first timer. He won the opportunity to participate in a drawing by the Fayette Optimist Club. Waggoner is entered in the Super Stock division.

“It should be interesting. I’ve seen it in movies and stuff but never really thought about doing it,” Thomas said.

Thomas’s father, J.B., accompanied his son on the short trip. While measuring an appropriate length for the brakes, J.B. Waggoner commented on the positives of the derby.

“I think this is great. It’s something we can do together. It enhances social skills, teaches basic construction skills, it’s hands on,” J.B. Waggoner said. “Anything besides video games is good with me.”

Aside from the glory and the chance to race in the world championships, the Mid-Missouri Soap Box Derby offers families the chance to come together. In addition to teaching simple physics concepts, the derby promotes community.

“It increases interaction among family, promotes good sportsmanship. It gives kids the chance to meet new kids, kids they don’t go to school with,” Schneider said. “Just a good wholesome family fun day is what we’re after.”

The race is not just for children, though. Some big names in Columbia will be competing for bragging rights in Sunday’s races as well. MU Chancellor Brady Deaton will compete against Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Jim Ritter. Columbia’s new police chief, Ken Burton, will race Boone County Sheriff Dwayne Carey. University Hospital and Clinics CEO James Ross will compete against Boone Hospital President Dan Rothery. Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser will race Boone County Presiding Commissioner Ken Pearson.

For those not able to attend the races, they will be broadcast live online at In addition to the live broadcast, a video will be posted after the event on the same Web site. If it rains, the races will be held on June 21.

For more information on the World Championships in Akron, Ohio, go to


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