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Participation in Soap Box Derby spans generations

Wednesday, June 15, 2011 | 7:57 p.m. CDT; updated 10:24 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Al Warrington helps his son-in-law, Rhodi Schnetzer, put together the steering system on Schnetzer's daughter's car for the Mid-Missouri Soap Box Derby. The race will take place on Sunday, rain or shine.

*CORRECTION: Jordan Weltha won the Super Stock Division in 2010. An earlier version of this story misstated the year.

COLUMBIA — Hamilton, Ontario, native Al Warrington raced in the Detroit News Soap Box Derby every year from 1955 to 1957 in a field of more than 700 drivers. Two generations later, 8-year-old Rhiannon Schnetzer, his granddaughter, is days away from her first race.

Rhiannon, who attends Parkade Elementary School, has some concerns.

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“I’m kind of scared because this thing’s gonna go fast, and I think I’m gonna crash,” she said.

Warrington will be downtown Sunday to watch his granddaughter compete in the Mid-Missouri Soap Box Derby. He was also one of several individuals who gathered at the Downtown Optimist Club on Monday to help put the finishing touches on this year’s cars. The races are set to take place from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. downtown at Seventh Street and Broadway.

Surrounded by cars decorated to each child’s specifications, Warrington, a 69-year-old whose gray beard reaches halfway down his chest, said soapbox cars have evolved over the years. Today the cars are assembled from kits, but he and his father built their car from scratch.

“When I say old school, I mean it was totally different than this,” Warrington said. “We started out at the lumberyard. We got better wheels, steel wheels. And we got the axle and we got a book. It said, ‘Here you go, good luck.’”

The cars aren’t the only difference that Warrington has seen since getting back into the sport.

“I didn’t know my granddaughter could run because there were no girls in Soap Box Derby in my years,” he said. “No women drivers. They didn’t give licenses to them, not until the '70s.”

Warrington and his son-in-law, Rhodi Schnetzer, put lightning bolt decals with his daughter’s name printed on them onto her light-pink car. With the final aesthetic touch complete, the car was ready for its weigh-in.

Chuck Boots, the derby director and a member of the Optimist Club, helped the family move the car onto a long, flat scale. Boots said family involvement separates Soap Box Derby from other recreational activities.

“Take baseball,” Boots said. “Baseball’s cool. This is a baseball town, but it’s a kid thing. This is a family event where everybody has their own little part because even after the car’s built, Dad has to set that car up on the ramp and help tell the child how to drive down the hill.”

Holly Weltha, whose son Jordan Weltha, 11, has raced the past two years, is one parent who has become immersed in Soap Box Derby. When her son won the Super Stock Division in 2010*, they had the opportunity to travel to the All-American Soap Box Derby nationals in Akron, Ohio.

“You meet people from all over the world,” she said. “They had cars from Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Germany. He didn’t place in nationals, but just the experience of going, meeting those people, the camaraderie among the drivers and the parents is just incredible.”

This year, her son will compete in the Stock Division. Derby rules state that once a driver wins a particular division, he or she cannot compete in that division again. Weltha said her son has been hard at work getting his new car ready for Sunday.

“He works his wheels all the time,” Weltha said. “He has an axle at home that he clamps onto the table, and he works his wheels with a shoe. I hear those wheels spinning all the time.”


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