Martinsburg revives soap box derby

December 06, 1999|By JULIE E. GREENE

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - NASCAR fans or not, dozens of children will get a chance to race down South Queen Street next year.

But first they have to build their cars.

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After a 46-year absence, the Soap Box Derby is returning to Martinsburg next year.

While there are plenty of organized contact sports available for local children, there is a need for an activity such as Soap Box Derby races, said Ron Butts, director of Norwalk Soap Box Derby Inc. of Berkeley County, W.Va.

The summer race will give youngsters who like wheels a chance to channel their energy and compete, Butts said.

Bob Usak Jr. remembers that feeling.

Usak, 66, of Ben Oaks Drive, won the 13-to-15-year-old division in 1946, the first year the race was held in Martinsburg after a four-year hiatus during World War II.


"It really was a big annual event," Usak said.

About 3,000 people attended the race that year when it was held on Red Hill on King Street, he said.

Then 13, Usak lost by less than a car length to 11-year-old Mearle Spickler, the winner of the 11-to-12-year-old division, in a race to see who would go to Akron, Ohio, for the national Soap Box Derby.

Usak still has the medal he won for winning his division and his family has his helmet. He doesn't remember what happened to the red racing car he made with an axle and wheels kit, a packing crate and 2-by-4s.

"I liked the competition and the racing part. It was real exciting for a kid - grownups too," he said.

Bringing back the event will be good for the kids and the community, Usak said.

The Eastern Panhandle Soap Box Derby was held in Martinsburg from 1936 to 1954, except during the war. Trammell Hollis Chevrolet sponsored the local event until the dealership changed hands, Butts said.

The idea to resurrect the derby began within the Norwalk Antique Car Club last January when a fellow member approached Butts about it.

A separate organization to run the derby was created and business support was sought, resulting in plans to begin holding the derby again in June 2000.

Roach Oil/Texaco is the main sponsor for the race, scheduled for 8 a.m. on June 10.

The 630-foot race will be held on South Queen Street, starting near the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Public Library, Butts said.

Children who will be 9 years old by Aug. 1, 2000, and up to 16 years of age can enter the race, Butts said.

Children will be separated into two divisions based on the combined weight of the car and driver. The stock division is limited to a combined weight of 200 pounds, while the super stock division is limited to 230 total pounds.

The winners of the two divisions will each receive a $500 savings bond and will go to Akron to compete in the national Soap Box Derby. The two winners' parents will receive money to offset the cost of staying in Akron, Butts said.

"Winners are treated like royalty when they arrive there," Butts said.

Participants must first attend two of four construction clinics at the Martinsburg Fire and Rescue Building at 200 N. Raleigh St.

The clinics will be held from 9 a.m. to noon on Feb. 26 and April 1 and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on March 25 and April 22.

Registration and car-kit order packets are available at the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Parks and Recreation office in Meadow Lane Plaza and at Country Roads Tire & Battery in the Berkeley Plaza Shopping Center.

Soap box derby officials want to honor previous winners and contestants such as Usak and Spickler at next year's race.

Former racers or those who know them may call Butts at 1-304-267-4675 after 4 p.m. or write to Norwalk Soap Box Derby Inc., P.O. Box 1781, Martinsburg, WV 25402.

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