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Gravity, ingenuity are the engines for these young racers

Wednesday, June 13, 2001

By Brian Prince, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The two cars lined up, and the drivers leaned forward into position. "Ready, go!" someone said, and the cars took off, down a ramp and into the distance.

Eleven-year-old Bruce Ross, foreground, of Pittsburgh, glances toward Sara Boyd, 10, of Scott, yesterday during a soapbox car trial run at McKeesport Area High School. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

It wasn't the Winston Cup finals -- it was the start of the All-American Soap Box Derby.

For the next three days, racers will be participating in trial runs in McKeesport in anticipation of the regional finals Sunday and, possibly, national competition later.

The derby is run by International Soap Box Derby Inc., a nonprofit corporation based in Akron, Ohio, and features racers from all over the world. Some 500 children have entered the contest this year, coming not only from across the country, but from overseas.

All racers must have their cars approved by a representative from the Greater Pittsburgh Soap Box Derby before the actual competition begins Sunday.

Last night, about five racers showed up to have their cars checked. One was 10-year-old John Albrecht Jr. from Jefferson Hills.

This being his second time in the contest, Albrecht was forced to make some adjustments but kept the same basic car as last year.

"We had to take off the body and replace it because it cracked during the winter," he said.

There are three divisions, separated by age and skill: Stock, for ages 9 to 16; Superstock, 10 to 16; and Masters, 11 to 16. The winner of each division gets a chance to compete in Akron for the grand prize, a scholarship, which last year was $5,000.

Sara Boyd, 10, of Scott, said prizes were not the main reason she entered.

"I thought it would be fun, and I'd be doing something with my grandpa," she said.

Like many of the contestants, Sara has a legacy to live up to. Her grandfather, David Chabala, also spent his childhood speeding down hills in a soap box.

"This was about 50 years ago," he said, "and I actually won second place."

John Albrecht Sr. also raced when he was a child.

"It's just fun getting [John Jr.] to sit down and do mechanical stuff," he said.

Albrecht Sr.'s parents are coming from Florida to watch their grandson compete.

To Chuck Freyer, director of the Greater Pittsburgh Soap Box Derby, the event's true value is not prizes, but in bringing people together.

"It promotes the family," he said. "Nowadays, you don't have that many things the whole family can get involved in."

Freyer expects as many as 300 people to line the street in front of McKeesport Area High School on Sunday. Though the cars go downhill at speeds exceeding 20 mph, he said the event was very safe.

To make sure it stays that way, the soap box cars must meet standards laid out in the official rule book. Each division places restrictions on size and weight.

The trial runs will continue today through Friday at the high school, from 6:30 to around 9 p.m. each day. Sunday's racing starts at 9:30 a.m. and will last until the afternoon.

According to the derby's Web site, the event was founded by a newsman who covered a race of boy-built cars in his home community and was so impressed that he acquired a copyright and began developing the program on a national scale.

The first All-American race was in Dayton in 1934. The following year, it moved to Akron because of its central location and hilly terrain.

Each year since, except during World War II, youngsters from throughout the United States and several foreign countries have come to Akron to compete in the finals.

The 64th running of the derby finals are at Derby Downs July 21. While everyone hopes to win, for some it is hardly the only goal.

"It's neat to watch her and her grandfather get together and do this as a hobby," Brian Boyd said of his daughter, Sara. In this derby, it seems, togetherness runs first.

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