If NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson had to start his racing career again, he would have dabbled in a Soap Box racer before moving into motorized cars.
Of course it’s not too late for him to realize a childhood curiosity as spokesman for the All-American Soap Box Derby, an annual competition featuring homemade cars raced by youths 8-17 from the USA and several foreign countries. An estimated 7,000 contestants will participate in 450 races culminating with the 68th finals July 25-30 in Akron, Ohio.
“My younger brother (Jarret) was in it a little bit, but I was usually around motorized cars,” said Johnson, who sits first in the Nextel Cup standings. “If I didn’t do motor cars, this is something I’d do and would have found a way to get into it.”
Johnson’s busy Cup schedule has limited his observation of a Soap Box Derby program in Rock Hill, S.C., but he’s fascinated with a concept that relies on simple gravity and aerodynamic power. Competitors build cars from kits purchased from AASBD with hopes of racing down Akron’s 954-foot, 11 percent grade Derby Downs course.
Competition consists of the Stock, Super Stock and Masters division. Basic kits range from $415 to more than $600 including helmet; Masters contestants build costlier, more elaborate models from scratch. Speeds reach 30 mph and up.
In many ways, Soap Box Derby teams mirror Cup teams’ principles of teamwork, workmanship and resolve – not to mention sponsorship – to make the dream happen.
No wonder the Soap Box Derby has become a Youth Initiative of NASCAR, which recently began airing a 30-second TV commercial featuring Johnson and touting its virtues.
The cars are primitive compared with what Johnson drives for a living, but he likes the bottom line – going faster than the other car.
“I’ve just seen highlights on TV, but it revolves around kids, and it just made sense (to be involved),” Johnson said. “It’s something I thought it would be neat to be a part of.”
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