Soap Box Derby rolls through McKeesport


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Seven-year-old Vaughn Good raced in the main and consolation brackets Sunday during the 75th annual Greater Pittsburgh Soap Box Derby. Even though his chances had run out with his losses, Vaughn wanted to climb back into the car he built with his great-uncle and roll down the hill, just one more time.

"He just wants to keep racing," said his great-uncle, Jeff Zentner of Swissvale.

Vaughn was one of about 40 children who participated Sunday in regional derby races, the winners of which will compete next month in the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio -- the national championships.

Vaughn was focused and didn't have much to say at the top of the hill as he waited to begin his next heat. Once he got to the bottom, though, he chattered to Mr. Zentner about whether he gets to keep the car (he does) and whether he gets to race again (unlikely, for this year at least).

Mr. Zentner said he and Vaughn built the car for the Swissvale boy to race in the Stock Division, and he made sure his great-nephew helped with construction and understood the aerodynamics behind the car. Vaughn took pride in the condition of his red car; he scrubbed all of the rust off the rear axle, Mr. Zentner said.

He said preparation for the annual McKeesport races was a good way to bond with his great-nephew, from building the car to discussing racing techniques. One of the most important things in soapbox derbies is keeping your head low and out of the wind, he said.

"I tell him to kiss the foam," Mr. Zentner said. All of the children who rolled down Eden Park Boulevard near McKeesport Area High School were enveloped by their cars, faces pressed against the foam that lined the insides.

Dozens of spectators lined the course, shouting tips at racers as they rolled past.

"Keep your head down!" they yelled if a child was not suitably compact. If a car started to drift over the double yellow line, someone would holler, "Watch the line!"

With temperatures hovering near 80 degrees, Linda Raymer of North Huntingdon was keeping cool under a tent, cheering on her two grandchildren, who have been racing for two years. Before that, her children and husband raced.

"It's a tradition for us," she said, adding that her husband, like Mr. Zentner, supervised the building of their grandchildren's cars.

"He made them put every screw in," she said.

Ms. Raymer remembers the crowd being 10, 20 people deep during the soap box derbies of her childhood.

"When I was a kid, you couldn't get near this place," she said. Despite fewer spectators, she said interest is "revitalized," with more than double the number of racers this year than in 2011.

In the Stock Division, the car and driver have to weigh in under 200 pounds, and Vaughn and his car came in just under the weight limit. Mr. Zentner expects Vaughn will join the Super Stock Division, which maxes out at 240 pounds, next year, and the car Vaughn raced this year will go to his 5-year-old brother.

The derby has been a McKeesport tradition for decades, and this year's races were the 31st on Eden Park Boulevard, race director Brian Brain said. He said the gentle slope outside McKeesport Area High School is "the perfect hill."

The district lets the derby use its auto body shop in the weeks leading up to the race, and people come from all over the Pittsburgh area to participate. Sunday's winners -- Stock Division: Kayla Coffield, 10, of Ingram; Super Stock Division: Malinda Mellor, 14, of Hazelwood; Master's Division: P.J. Mornar, 11, of West Mifflin -- will be in Ohio on July 21 to compete in the national championships.

The day's events also included races featuring local media figures and elected officials. Just before noon, McKeesport Mayor Mike Cherepko and McKeesport Area schools superintendent Timothy Gabauer stood at the top of the boulevard, waiting to roll down the hill in borrowed cars. While kids are nearly swallowed by the cars, adults sit with their knees up around their arms while they ride. Mr. Cherepko and Mr. Gabauer shouted at each other as they rolled down the hill, but Mr. Cherepko was victorious.

The mayor said the annual event is a boon for McKeesport.

"Any time you have any event ... that brings people in, it's good for the city," he said.

region - neigh_east - neigh_south - sportsother

Annie Siebert: asiebert@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1613. Twitter: @AnnieSiebert.


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