COLUMBIA — When Charles Neville volunteered for the Mid Missouri Soap Box Derby in 2011, his son, Charles, was too young to participate.
"Three years ago, I’d come and helped set up," said Neville, a member of the Downtown Optimist Club, which sponsors the event. "I’d asked Charles if he wanted to come and watch after the setup. When he was watching he was like ‘Dad, I’d like to do that next year.’”
Stock Division: Emma Tatlow, 10, sponsored by Lakewood Home & Garden Showplace
Super Stock Division: Carter Montague, 11, sponsored by Machens Body Shop
Masters Division: Breann Standifer, 12, sponsored by I-70 Towing
Totals: 43 drivers competed; 18 in stock, 19 in super stock, six in masters.
The next year, when he was 7, Charles raced for the first time and won the stock division.
This year, he returned for his third go-around — his second time in the super stock division — at the derby Sunday in downtown Columbia.
"I like going down the hill and building the cars," he said.
While the soap box cars come pre-assembled, each driver and their pit crew are responsible for tweaking and adjusting the cars to meet each driver's needs.
"You’ve got to get them set right," said Steve Tatlow, whose 10-year-old daughter, Emma, competed in and won the stock division. "You’ve got to work out everything from the wheels to your balance, the distribution of your weight, your tension on your axles, the fit and finish of the whole thing. You’re trying to get it aerodynamic and find the suspension that’ll work for this track."
The track he refers to is a downhill stretch of Broadway that runs eastward from Seventh Street to Providence Road. Bumps in the road that seem small to the everyday driver can make a big difference in the derby.
"It’s a gravity race," Tatlow said. "Anything that’s in the track that can slow you, you want to try to avoid, but you can’t spend time zig-zagging, so you try to pick a good line that’ll give you the best advantage. You’re going to have to hit some bumps."
Charles said he used a strategy to avoid the smaller roadblocks.
"There's a bump down there on the square," he said. "If you hit the bump, it'll catch your wheel and you'll go slower. My sister found out that if you go right over the middle, (the wheels) won't hit the bump at all."
The lanes are also a tad uneven. To accommodate these slight differences, drivers switch lanes after their races and an average of the two times is used. They switch wheels with their opponents between each race, as well, to make sure no driver has an unfair advantage over another.
Both drivers and their pit crews are well aware of these differences. It's what Charles' mother, Eryca, calls "lane analysis."
"The fun part is looking at the kids while they’re driving and looking at the adults while they’re going back and forth," she said. "Everyone’s got a theory — where’s fast, where’s slow, where the bumps are."
Some experienced crews have it down to a science. Tatlow and his wife, Holly, have spent 10 years at the derby with their children, Trevor, Chelsea, and now their youngest, Emma, who's been coming to the derby since she was a year old, her mother said. They've seen what works, what doesn't, and how the little things can change everything.
"Even a rough spot on one of the washers can mean the difference between winning and losing," Holly Tatlow said. "They go through and sand everything. It’s about the really small details."
On Sunday, the small details were in Emma's favor, as she won her division. Carter Montague, 11, won the super stock division and Breann Standifer, 12, placed first in the masters division. Charles placed fourth in the super stock division. Overall, 43 drivers competed; 18 in stock, 19 in super stock, six in masters.
Each of the division winners will advance to nationals at the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio, for a weeklong event that starts July 20.
This year would mark the Tatlows' second trip to the national derby; Emma's brother, Trevor, competed there previously.
"Going to Akron is a huge deal," Steve Tatlow said. "It’s very exciting for the kids. The whole city comes out and just puts on an incredible production. The kids are all in a parade. They get put up on stage with a band, and it’s a weeklong festivity. The whole city puts a lot into it."
Emma won't make it to nationals this year, though, as she will be busy that week competing in the Boone County Fair 4-H/FFA Horse Show. But she's sure to return to the local races, her mother said.
"She and her father have decided that she has seven more years to make it back there (to nationals)," Holly Tatlow said.
Before the other division winners look forward to nationals, the racers can enjoy spending time with friends, as Emma did, at the local race.
"They have a lot of fun," Holly Tatlow said. "They love this day."
Supervising editor is Mary Ryan.