The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

By Peter Stein
Staff Writer 

Racers get ready for soap box derby

 

File photo

The Clovis Soap Box Derby is scheduled for Saturday on Sycamore Street between Fairmont Court and 14th Street. The overall race winner will qualify for the national derby July 21 in Akron, Ohio.

CLOVIS - Up over a ramp, down Sycamore Street, to 14th street they go. Where they'll stop?

They hope in Akron, Ohio.

Saturday, the 17th annual Clovis Soap Box Derby takes place from 9 a.m. to around 2:30 p.m., with the champion getting a sponsored trip to Akron's Derby Downs Track for the 81st All-American Soap Box Derby World Championships on July 21. The city best known as home to major tire companies and LeBron James is descended upon by over 500 racers from across the globe vying for a world soap box title.

First things first, though. Each racer has to win his or her local derby before earning that trip to the Buckeye State. Saturday, there will be 24 competitors trying to represent Clovis.

"That's probably the highest we've had," derby director Larry Erwin said. "I think we had 23 last year. We're picking up cars every year."

Erwin, who runs his own financial planning company in Clovis, is a derby car sponsor and one of the main reasons Clovis began its Soap Box Derby in 2002, not long after he attended a derby in Rio Rancho.

"I had gone up and watched them race," Erwin recalled, "so we decided to try it here."

The Clovis Rotary Club was looking for a project that it could run on a continual basis, instead of doing something different ever year. The club also wanted something that could get a lot of the community involved.

"And I was dumb enough to suggest the Soap Box Derby," Erwin said, laughing. "So I got to be the director and I've been the director ever since."

The derby is open to boys and girls who will be no younger than 9 or older than 18 by July 1. Erwin says it's been a roughly 50/50 split among male and female racers since the Clovis Derby's inception. The maximum weight - racer and car totaled - is 240. "Most of ours, we keep 'em down around 230," Erwin said. "It's a slower track and they feel they run better at the lighter weights than they do all the way up to 240."

The double-elimination race is divided into heats. A heat consists of two runs by two cars squaring off against each other at a time. After the first run, the cars go back up the hill for the second and trade lanes. Whichever car has the lowest combined time moves into the winner's bracket. The other one heads for the loser's bracket and cannot afford another defeat.

Each car is a kit car, made of "not fiberglass, but I would say a plastic polymer shell ordered from All-American Soap Box Derby," Erwin said. The entry fee is $25 which includes a helmet and T-shirt, but the car cost is usually in the $800-$1,000 range. Sponsors like Erwin help defray some if not all of those costs, with cars having one sponsor or several.

"My car last year was the oldest car in the race; it finally won after 16 years," Erwin said. "And we've had cars that have won the first year. A lot of it has to do with the driver. We've got kids that learn how to drive the course better than some of the others do."

Erwin himself was once one of those kids, a racer who competed for and won his own spot in Akron.

"When I was growing up, all you had was Soap Box Derby or Little League," Erwin recalled. "There wasn't much else to do in the summer. You either did one or the other."

Soap Box Derby waned in the 1970s, partly due to cheating scandals, but made a comeback in the '80s.

It's become a community event throughout the world, with racers visiting Akron from Japan, New Zealand, Germany, England and elsewhere. So it's not strictly an American thing, which Erwin says was even the case when he was competing as a child.

There are more than racers and organizers needed for these derbies. People have to carry the cars here or there, and that takes a few per car, because each car weighs roughly 120-140 pounds. For Clovis' derby, the ROTC, high school football team, and service men and women from Cannon Air Force Base, provide invaluable help with that and with running the operation. So do others from all over Clovis.

"No matter what problems we've had," Erwin said, "there's always been someone there to solve them. That's what makes it nice to live in a small town. ... It takes a lot to do it. We probably have twice as many people working as we do racing."

Once the racers and their cars are atop Sycamore Street, it's mostly up to gravity from then on. No engine, no pedaling, no push, just the good old-fashioned laws of Isaac Newton. Saturday, one of the 24 racers will parlay that gravity and some degree of skill into a trip to Akron.

"The kids enjoy it, they have a good time," Erwin said. "Most kids find it to be one of the highlights of their life."

 

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