Racers brave rain to keep McKeesport's Soapbox Derby tradition
More than 100 people braved the wind and rain Sunday to keep the Greater Pittsburgh Soapbox Derby tradition alive in McKeesport.
Eden Park Boulevard was closed to traffic on Father's Day from the intersection of O'Neil Boulevard to the main entrance of McKeesport Area High School as 36 young racers competed in three divisions.
Race director Bryan Brain said the field was one of the three largest in the local Derby's history.
One winner from each division advanced to July's All-American Soapbox Derby National Finals in Akron, Ohio.
Keith Morris, 10, of Monongahela defeated Malinda Mellor to win the Masters division in his first year competing. He drove the Haunted Hills Hayride car.
“It's a great honor,” Keith said. “It's my first year and I got to drive the hardest car. Facing Malinda was really hard because she beat me earlier on.”
Keith's dad Chris Schibik said he enjoyed the family-friendly atmosphere.
“It's really awesome,” Schibik said. “It's terrific. I wish more people had shown up to watch this. The kids have a good time.”
Five time Derby participant Emilie Gniewkowski, 13, of North Huntingdon Township won the Super Stock to earn her first trip to nationals. She drove the All Occasion Disc Jockey car.
“I'm real excited about it because I've gotten second twice. I finally won one,” Emilie said. “I drove better, and I got down in the car lower so there wasn't as much resistance.”
Marcaila Ziolkowski, 13, of Pittsburgh won the Stock division in her second year of driving the Chuck's Auto Service car.
“It might be hard at nationals, but I'm just going to have fun,” Marcaila said.
Drivers faced challenges in the rain.
“It was hard because you kept sliding everywhere, and my breaks worked terribly,” Marcaila said.
Brain said that the decision to race in the inclement weather was a judgement call.
“We have only one opportunity to make this race happen with the road being shut down,” he said. “As long as there are no thunderstorms and lightening in the area we'll try to run through it. If it gets bad enough, we hold it up for a little bit.”
Brain said the rain caused some drivers to slide into the lane cones, but that no one was injured.
Racers put their cars through time trials and safety inspections at McKeesport Area High School last week.
The race has been on Eden Park Boulevard since 1954, with a 10-year hiatus from 1972-82 because of a cheating scandal at the All-American Soapbox Derby.
“It's one of the best,” Brain said of the Eden Park course. “With the way the hill slopes, the kids get good speed. A lot of tracks are flat.”
Top speeds in the McKeesport race range from 28-32 mph and the margin of victory Sunday was often only hundredths of a second.
Homestead police Cpl. John Kaschauer came out with his son Vinnie, 10, and daughter Tia, 7. It was Vinnie's third year racing and Tia's first. She drove the pace car last year.
“It's fun and you're with your kids doing something that they enjoy and you enjoy on Father's Day,” Kaschauer said. “This year they both got to race and both had a really good time.
McKeesport competitors never have won at nationals, but they might have a chance this year.
“From today's race it seems we're going to be able to compete with them,” Brain said. “I'm not sure how good they'll do. There's three lanes (at nationals). It totally changed the game.”
McKeesport's race has two lanes and is double-elimination. Akron is single-elimination.
Weight limits are 200 pounds for Stock cars, 240 pounds for Super Stock and 255 pounds for Master cars, all including the driver's weight.
Drivers are 7-17 years old. Pace car drivers can be 6 years old.
Individuals and businesses sponsor cars made from kits sanctioned by the All-American Soapbox Derby and cost $400-$600. Sponsors include 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.