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Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio, on fast track to restoring rich tradition

| Friday, July 26, 2013, 11:27 p.m.
Matthew Coulter of Brockaway, Pa., celebrates with his co-pilot, Nicholas Gongaware of Akron, Ohio, after winning his heat in the National Super Kids Classic at Derby Downs on Friday July 26, 2013.
Local masters champ Patrick Barnes, 11, of Arlington, Mass., races down the hill during a trial run for the 76th FirstEnergy All-American Soap Box Derby at Derby Downs on Wednesday, July 24, 2013, in Akron, Ohio.
Matthew Coulter of Brockaway, Pa., celebrates with his co-pilot, Nicholas Gongaware of Akron, Ohio, after winning his heat in the National Super Kids Classic at Derby Downs on Friday July 26, 2013.

AKRON, Ohio — The FirstEnergy All-American Soap Box Derby isn't what it used to be. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, according to race President and CEO Joe Mazur.

“The race had fallen on hard times — very hard times,” said Mazur of the 76th race on Saturday, featuring more than 430 participants from across the United States and Canada, Japan and New Zealand at historic Derby Downs, including a contingent from Western Pennsylvania. “But the upside potential was absolutely incredible.”

Held annually in northeast Ohio, the Soap Box Derby has been run in Akron every year, except for the inaugural race in 1934, when it was held in Dayton, Ohio. The race moved to Akron the following year because of its more central location. Akron is about 30 minutes from Cleveland and about two hours from Pittsburgh.

Akron's hilly terrain provides a better driving experience for the participants, who race downhill in gravity-powered cars on a track that measures 989 feet, 4 inches in length and 30 feet in width.

Mazur took over the derby after serving as regional vice president at convention management firm SMG in March 2011. His responsibilities included Mellon Arena and the Wolstein Center in Cleveland.

When he arrived in Akron — not far from his hometown of Richfield, Ohio — the nonprofit derby was reeling from the loss of corporate sponsors and a 2009 lawsuit from a bank seeking payment on $580,000 in loans.

“The bank (FirstMerit) pulled the note and said, ‘Enough's enough,' ” Mazur said. “They said they felt like they were pulling the plug on a church. But if they didn't do that, the derby wouldn't be on the fast track it is now.”

FirstMerit was connected to 25 Hill, a film about a Soap Box Derby racer that premiered in Akron. The film, made by actor and director Corbin Bernsen, generated $150,000 for the derby in 2010 and '11.

However, Mazur's big breakthrough occurred when he signed Akron-based FirstEnergy for three years, marking the derby's first sponsorship following the departure of Levi Strauss Signature in 2007.

Mazur brought the derby out of the dark ages, implementing a database that traces past winners and creating $5,000 scholarships from Goodyear, another local company, for the winners in the top three divisions. Winners had not received full scholarships since Chevrolet was associated with the derby in the 1970s.

In November, Mazur revealed the derby made a $35,000 profit for the year ending in September. Additional funds arrived through foundations and grants, corporate events at Derby Downs and sales of derby car kits.

“I hope they can do it, because it's a wonderful program in a lot of ways,” said Melanie Payne, author of “Champions, Cheaters and Childhood Dreams: Memories of the All-American Soap Box Derby.”

Payne, a former Akron Beacon-Journal reporter, writes a consumer-based column for the Fort Myers (Fla.) News-Press. She said she wrote the book, which was released in 2003 and re-released two years ago, because of the derby's uniqueness as well as its financial hardships.

“The derby didn't change with the times, and that really hurt,” said Payne. “After I started writing the book, I got really interested in the story of what this race did for kids and their relationship with mentors. Almost all of them will always remember the person who helped them build their car.”

Addressing concerns from racers and their families, Mazur met with the manufacturer of the derby car kits selling for $700 so that the shells of the car were cut the right way.

Carley Vedro of Monaca has no such concerns.

Vedro will participate in Saturday's race because she won the Super Stock division in the Western Pennsylvania Soap Box Derby in Ambridge on June 8. There are five race divisions: Stock Car, Super Stock, Masters, Rally and Ultimate Speed Challenge.

Carley, 14, is the youngest and most successful Soap Box Derby driver among George Vedro's three daughters. Chelsey, 19, and Celina, 18, will be in Akron, supporting their sister.

“I never raced soap box,' said George Vedro, “but I was always a motor head with cars, and I had a lot of influence on the girls. They enjoy it.

“We're going to be staying in Akron in a camper all week.”

The derby record at the current distance is 28.24 seconds set in 2004 by Hillary Pearson of Kansas City.

“Carley's car is fast, but there's a lot of competition from all over the world,” said George Vedro. “Does she have a shot to win? Probably as good as anybody else.”

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at<mailto:jharris@tribweb.comor via Twitter @JHarris_Trib.

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