Down the hill of cheap thrills: Youths compete for top spot at soapbox derby

Posted: Sunday, May 22, 2011

Kenai Rotary Soapbox Derby results:

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Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Chase Gillies, foreground, and Dylan Stockdale race nose-to-nose down Spruce street in Kenai Saturday afternoon during the Kenai Rotary Soap Box Derby.

1st place -- Chase Gillies

2nd place -- Delbrian Parfitt

3rd place -- Adara Warren

Down the hill, a few bright orange cones and a few checkered flags marked the finish line.

Two by two, they'd cross it -- one with eyes still fixed on the end of the road, lips pursed for aerodynamics. The other was usually grimacing in defeat.

Behind metallic blue sunglasses, under a green helmet and ponytail trailing behind, Jenna Helminski was the former -- skidding to the reception area to dismount her soapbox after finishing ahead of her opponent.

"It's fun because it gives you this big adrenaline rush," said the 11-year-old Jenna with a grin. "You're racing and you see the side of a cliff and so you are like, 'Stay over.'"

Shortly after loading up her soapbox to be pulled back up the hill for the 4th Annual Kenai Rotary Soapbox Derby, Helminski was congratulated by her "pit crew."

Or at least that's how her mother Mary described her role in watching her daughter reach speeds of up to 35 miles per hour.

"I think its great," Mary said. "I'd like to see her go 70. I like to see that. I like to see women, see the girls out there racing. It gives them some backbone, right?"

When asked if she would like to continue being a soapbox mom, Mary had a quick answer.

"I don't know, I think they can do it until they're 17 right?" she said with a laugh. "As long as she can fit in that car and we keep getting those calls. I love it though."

Saturday's soapbox race saw 17 cars race down the Spruce Street hill, some decorated with flames, faces, or other decidedly more corporate designs. In addition to the usual first, second and third place results, riders were also awarded with prizes like best car and best pit crew, organizers said.

Jenna said she had some advice for new soapbox racers.

"Don't wear hoods at all," she said noting the hood's lack of aerodynamic benefits. "Nothing that's going to make you look all puffy."

Kalvin Daniels, 12, said he liked to race because of the speed and the competition with his friends. He's also developed a bit of advice for other riders.

"You want to do a couple of practice runs to get used to your car, always be confident," he said. "Never be scared because you'll overturn and go over the edge. Always stay close to the line, just don't go over it."

Daniels said he liked the fact he could get out of the house and enjoy some fresh air away from the temptation of video games.

"It's fun -- something to do in the summer," he said. "You can win a trophy and you have a lot of fun building the car with your dad. Just being with your dad is cool."

Dan Mattson sat on a bale of hay near the curve in the raceway, camera in hand. He said he never got the chance to race soapboxes when he was younger, but wishes he had.

"I think it is a challenge and it's good for them to learn competition and learn control and keep it in their lane and all that good stuff," he said. "It is good for them to learn the hand-eye coordination, too."

At the end of the raceway stood Carrie Couey, the self-proclaimed "traffic control lady."

Even though it was her first time at a soapbox derby, Couey said the event felt like a celebration marking the beginning of summer.

"It's cool -- I want to do it," she said.

"You can see some of the kids that built it themselves and then there are some that are obviously professionally done," she said looking at the rack of cars. "So it reminds me of when my son was in Cub Scouts and they would do the pinewood derby."

Couey thinks some of the fathers participating in the event liked the race more than their sons or daughters. It was a chance, she said, for them to race vicariously.

"I bet if they made a soapbox car big enough, they'd all be out here racing, too," she said with a laugh.

Kasilof resident Ben Mattox, 15, raced soapboxes for three years, eventually winning the competition and going to the national race in Ohio.

"After I won, they wouldn't let me back in," said Mattox as he stood on the side of the road holding a flag and radio to communicate with those at the top of the hill.

"If I can't race, then I've got to do something," he said.

Even though Mattox said he built his soapbox car with his dad several years ago, the secret to his winning ways weren't in its design.

"It looks cool, has flames on it," he said.

Really, there are just a few rules -- not any secrets -- one should keep in mind for soapbox success, he said.

"Just stay focused, keep your head low while you squeeze your body as tight as you can to make yourself more aerodynamic," he said. "Try not to swerve all over the road. That's it."

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