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Soapbox derby good, clean fun for racers

Monday, June 28, 1999

By John M.R. Bull, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Becky Wagner zoomed down the slope, blond hair blown back by the wind and eyes focused intently on the finish line.

  Renee Niklewicz, 11, of Beaver Falls, makes a last-minute check of her car shortly before competing in the Greater Pittsburgh Soap Box Derby in McKeesport yesterday. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

She hadn't lost a race all day. She had only her cousin, Geoff Puchalski, to beat to go on to the national soapbox derby championships.

She hit the finish line at 24 miles an hour and won by less than a foot.

Afterward, the shy 14-year-old from West Mifflin was all smiles.

She will represent the Greater Pittsburgh area in Akron, Ohio, as the winner of the Super Stock division, and will be joined by Renee Niklewicz, 11, of Beaver Falls, who won the smaller Stock division.

Yesterday's race, held in McKeesport every year since 1982, was a slice of Americana.

Families bunched at the finish line to cheer on the racers who were 9 to 16 years old. Family members were volunteers who helped run the event.

"Uncle Tom" had electrical tape to fix a last minute problem on one car. "Uncle Andy" helped weigh the cars used by the 20 racers.

"It's a family-oriented thing," said Bill Dobos of McKeesport, whose two now-grown children raced years ago and still have their carts more than a decade later.

"My kids wouldn't let me throw them out," he said. "They have many good memories of them."

Soapbox derbys are not what they used to be.

Nowadays, the carts are made of plastic and are aerodynamically designed. They're built low and sleek, about 6 feet long and 1 1/2 feet tall.

In the old days, soapbox carts were made from wood planks, baby buggy wheels and, well, soapboxes -- hence the name soapbox derby.

Carts now weigh 60 to 69 pounds, and are prefabricated to exact specifications and shipped in boxes with the warning label saying "some assembly required." They can be put together in a weekend, and cost roughly $260.

Yesterday's main concern was weight. By national rules, no occupied cart can be raced if it weighs more than 200 or 250 pounds, depending on the kind of cart.

So, before each heat, the car and the driver are loaded onto a century-old postal scale one parent bought at an auction a decade ago.

If the racer is a lightweight, weights are added to the front of the car to make the total weight as close to the legal limit as possible. The idea is: The heavier the vehicle, the faster it will go.

Parents and racers take all this very seriously.

In fact, Megan Cox of Munhall sweated off so much weight by her third race that she was told by a volunteer that she probably could afford the extra weight that a drink of water would cause.

Roy Cox Sr. of McKeesport was telling folks about his first soapbox derby, in 1936, when all the carts were put at the top of a hill and took off at the same time. The first one down was the winner.

Nowadays, it's a double elimination tournament with brackets so complicated that the NCAA men's 64-team basketball tourney is downright simplistic.

"It's a lot different from the old days," agreed Bob Cox, director of the Greater Pittsburgh Soap Box Derby Association. Now, it's very competitive.

"It's not rare to lose a race by 0.001" of a second, he noted.

Although there were only 20 racers at yesterday's event, organizers spent months getting everything lined up.

A man from Murrysville donated the hay bales that lined the track. A concession stand was set up. The local police department donated a radar device to display in 2-foot-tall numbers the speed of the racers.

Allegheny County donated the snow fence. A variety of sponsors gave money in return for placement of the corporate names on the sides of the carts.

T-shirts for all contestants and volunteer workers were supplied by Union Orthotics and Prosthetics Co.

It took three hours of continuous racing down 626 feet of Eden Park Boulevard, in front of McKeesport Area High School, to determine the winners.

When the day was done, Niklewicz had won her division, smiled and hugged her dad, Bob, who, over several months, helped her to build her white cart with black racing stripes.

She said she had a lot of fun during her second year of racing.

"It was hot," she said.

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