The top of Spruce Drive in Kenai was unusually quiet for the number of people standing in the roadway. Two large, steel platforms stood side-by-side and on top, two snub-nosed soap box derby cars sat at an angle; their adolescent drivers peering out from under blue helmets, waiting for the countdown.
“3..2..1..,” counts race director Scott Hamann before he pulls a lever suddenly releasing the two cars with a loud clang. The silence is shattered by the long, low rumble of derby cars picking up speed as they fly downhill, heading for the finish line.
Rows of parents lined the roadways, cameras in hand, shouting encouragements as they speculated over which racer crossed the line first, during the sixth annual All-American Soap Box Derby competition Saturday in Kenai.
“You go pretty fast and it’s a rush,” said Kelsi Ulrich, 13, of Funny River. “My first time practicing I was a little nervous.”
Kelsi sat differently than other racers on the track who fitted themselves into their cars before leaning down and into the wind as the raced downhill.
She propped her right leg up and grabbed the steering while at an angle, riding with her knee close to her head and leaning as far over as possible to the left.
She insisted that her angle worked better than the traditional sitting stance and helped her win.
Each car can weigh a maximum of 240 pounds. The heavier the car, the faster gravity propels it downhill, so kids who don’t weigh very much add weights to their carts help even out the race themselves and larger, older kids.
As Kelsi explained her strategy for winning, 9-year-old Zachary Ulrich, her younger brother, hopped from side to side on one foot shaking his head. At one point he interrupted to point out that it wouldn’t make her faster.
Zachary spent race day running up and down the steep hill in his Carhartt overalls and a bright orange hoodie. He hung around the pit crew, hopping up and down as they picked each of the 60 pound cars up and put them onto a trailer waiting to ferry them back up the hill.
He could barely stand still when he talked about watching both his cousin and his sister race and lamented being just six months shy of the cutoff limit for the age required to compete.
Racers have to be between 10 and 17-years-old.
Still, his youth didn’t keep Zachary from trying one of the cars out on a night earlier this week, when the cars were brought to the makeshift track to allow racers the chance to practice.
“I think it’s really neat ‘cause none of them have motors and they go really fast, like 30-something miles an hour,” he said.
Zachary had a hard time explaining just exactly how piloting one of the cars felt and the words tumbled out of him as he leaned forward to demonstrate piloting a car.
“Fast, bumpy, a little scary, nervous,” he said.
The Ulrichs joined their cousin Brenner Furlong, 12, of Soldotna, in the competition. Furlong insisted he was the faster of the two between himself and cousin Kelsi. He won the first place trophy in the competition.
Kelsi just grinned and said she’d do the whole thing again next year. Zachary said the best part of his day was watching his sister win two of her races.
The Rotary Club of Kenai hosted the competition which raises money for scholarships. While the entry fees are steep at $800 for a new car and $150 for an existing car, Hamann said corporate sponsorship opens the competition to all ages and income brackets.
“That’s one of the things about soapbox derby is it’s fair for all kids,” Hamann said. “Doesn’t matter how rich your parents are or what kind of resources you have. They’re built to exacting specifications, really the only difference is the paint jobs.”
Before each race, the derby carts were loaded onto the platforms and then volunteers swapped the wheels between the two.
Hamann said it helped keep the races even and ensured no one cheated or gave themselves an unfair advantage with different wheels.
Furlong will be offered an expenses paid trip, along with a chaperone, to Akron, Ohio to represent Kenai in pursuit of the National All-American Soap Box Derby title.
“I think so far we have sent four champions to go represent us,” Hamann said. “I think that’s just a great opportunity for kids to do something locally that means something on a national scale and get to go out there and represent us, really helps them grow.”
Each racer had two chances to lose a race before being done for the day and the fourteen participating cars went through nine rounds before the winner was determined.
Some racers began pushing their simple rubber-tipped brake as soon as they crossed the finish line but others, like 10-year-old Raven Patrick, of Kenai, flew downhill and didn’t stop until almost reaching the beach, well beyond the end of the 900 foot track.
“I like the part when you’re coming down like, right when you see the finish line,” Patrick said.
The short brunette had a long group of red feathers in her hair that flew wildly around as she careened past the finish line and caused more than a few volunteers and spectators to move quickly out of her way.
She hopped out of car, grinning, and helped the pit crew volunteers load her car onto the trailer before turning away from a van waiting to ferry her back uphill to the starting line.
“I like hiking back up,” she said. “It’s just fun.”