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Young racers set to drive in revived Soap Box Derby

June 09, 2000|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - When Martin Frye suggested to Ron Butts that Martinsburg revive its Soap Box Derby after almost 50 years, neither knew about the other's past.

Frye piloted a car in the derby in 1951, the last time it was held locally.

Butts had longed to race as a kid, but he couldn't because his father was an official. "It just left something unfinished in my life that I really wanted to do," he said Wednesday.

In the 17 months since Frye floated the idea, an organizing committee has brought the Soap Box Derby back to life.

On Saturday, 38 racers in two divisions will zip 630 feet down South Queen Street, starting at the Boarman Arts Center. The cars are not motorized. Gravity and the slope of the road will make them go.

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Butts said the race was held in Martinsburg from 1936 to 1951, with four years off during World War II. Chevrolet was a national sponsor and local dealers had to organize and promote the races in their cities.

Trammell Hollis Chevrolet on Winchester Avenue was the Martinsburg sponsor until Hollis, the owner, died in 1952. Butts' father, Arthur, was a service manager for Trammell Hollis Chevrolet.

Frye said he hadn't thought about reviving the Soap Box Derby until November 1998. He was at a meeting of the Norwalk Antique Car Club when he ran into the mother of the boy he faced in the 1951 derby.

A few months later, he and Butts, who also belongs to the car club, talked again.

Now there is a corporation called Norwalk Soap Box Derby Inc., an offshoot of the car club. Butts is the director and Frye is the president.

Goodyear, which sponsors the national Soap Box Derby, sponsored a pre-race inspection in Martinsburg on May 13.

The local race has new title sponsors, too. It is officially called the Roach Oil/Texaco Classic.

The city and county have offered support.

Local winners will go on to the national competition in July, when 365 winners from across the country and four other nations will race each other in Akron, Ohio, according to Butts.

Butts said the derby is a mix of sport, fun, achievement and bonding. During instructional clinics and a test run at James Rumsey Technical Institute, parents spent a lot of time with their children and developed stronger connections, he said.

Racers send for a standard car kit from the national organization.

Butts missed his chance to race in the derby, but said he's excited to see his two grandchildren entered.

Twelve-year-old Tabitha Porterfield said she spent a leisurely day assembling her car. Her brother, Braxton, 10. took a little less time, with help from Butts.

Tabitha said she wasn't scared during practice runs of about 500 feet near her home and in Westminster, Md., because she was safely tucked inside. "You have a brake," she pointed out.

Braxton said his car didn't go fast enough during his trials to make him nervous, although he conceded, "I never liked fast things."

Butts wanted only Braxton to enter this year, but Tabitha talked him into letting her race, too.

It's unlikely they'll face each other, unless both reach the final rounds. If they did face off, Tabitha said she'd have "mixed feelings" about beating her brother. She admitted, though, that she's competitive.

Braxton said he's less driven. Since he gets along well with his sister, he would consider letting her win a showdown, he said.

"These kids will be in for a thrill and a treat," said Frye, who glided along that same stretch of Queen Street 49 years ago.

He said the cars can go as fast as 30 to 35 miles per hour. "It feels like you're flying downhill," he said.

Frye is sponsoring a car for his wife's 12-year-old cousin, Kyle Spiker. His grandchildren are likely to enter future races, he said.

Racers brought their cars to Porterfield's Collision Center for a final inspection on June 3. The cars were impounded and will be returned to the entrants before the race.

An opening ceremony will be held at 8 a.m. Saturday.

The first race will be started at about 8:45 a.m. by Hunter Mauck, the winner of the 1951 derby. Other competitors from past Martinsburg Soap Box Derby races are scheduled to appear. Races will continue throughout the morning and afternoon.

Racers must be between 9 and 16 years old on Aug. 1.

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