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Racers ready for Sunday's Soapbox Derby in McKeesport

| Thursday, June 13, 2013, 10:27 a.m.
Peter Ferrante, 14, of West Deer Township awaits the 'go' from volunteer Russ Weiland.
John Murray gives his granddaughter Jade Long, 7, one final safety and helmet check before a practice run. The derby has been a family affair for the Springdale family since 2007.
Bryce Miller, 9, of Herminie polishes the axle of his derby car with some steel wool in preparation for Sunday's event.
A very excited Nathan Wehrer, 10, anxiously awaits his grandfather Dave McDonough to finish adding decals to his Soapbox derby car. They are joined by Nathan's parents Jim Wehrer and Melinda Good.

A tradition of soapbox derby races in McKeesport continues Sunday along Eden Park Boulevard.

The annual Greater Pittsburgh Soapbox Derby starts at 9 a.m., and organizers said it will feature one of the largest gatherings of racers in recent memory.

“It probably goes back to the 1970s when we had numbers this big,” said John Wagner, president of the local derby association.

He said word-of-mouth and having derby cars at various events have driven interest in the race.

There are 16 Stock, 16 Super Stock and six Master racers entered. The crowd is expected to be between 300-500.

Winners in each bracket of the double-elimination tournament will advance to the All-American Soapbox Derby National Finals in Akron, Ohio, where more than 450 racers will compete.

Former McKeesport resident and former derby director Chuck Freyer said McKeesport's derby ran from 1954-1972 and started up again in 1982.

In 1972, the All-American Soapbox Derby was rocked by a scandal. Its winner was found to have used an electromagnet in the nose of his car, attached to coils and a battery in the rear.

Freyer said the scandal caused a major lull in the sport, and many communities didn't pick it back up for about a decade.

Racers are putting their cars through time trials and safety inspections at McKeesport Area High School this week in preparation for the race.

Freyer said McKeesport lends a lot of support to the race.

“McKeesport helps us so much,” Freyer said. “I got a lot of good to say about McKeesport. Every mayor has helped us ... We can't ask for better than this. Where else can a kid under 16 years old drive on the street?”

Stock cars weigh up to 200 pounds. Super Stock weighs 240 pounds and Master cars weigh 255 pounds. That includes the driver's weight.

Drivers are 7-17 years old. Pace car drivers can be 6 years old. Drivers of pace cars don't compete in the actual race but set the pace and position racers.

Jade Long, 6, of Springdale is driving a pace car. She said the derby is fun and she's excited to participate.

This year's Celebrity class of racers features The Daily News general manager Robert R. Hammond, state Reps. Bill Kortz and Marc Gergely, Allegheny County Councilman Bob Macey, the Rev. Terrence O'Connor of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, and Trib Total Media news exchange partner WPXI-11 personality Brittny McGraw.

Individuals and businesses sponsor cars to get their names on the vehicles, which are made from kits sanctioned by the All-American Soapbox Derby. Cars cost $400-$600. Top speeds in the McKeesport race range from 28-32 mph and the margin of victory is often hundredths of a second.

Major sponsors are Union Orthotics & Prosthetics Co., Duquesne Light, Aerotech and Two Men and a Truck.

Michael DiVittorio is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1965, or