Riding down a hill at 25 to 30 miles an hour in a soap box car can put a smile on any child's face, says Ken Myers, director of the Huntersville, N.C., Soap Box Derby Racing chapter.
One of those rides in June did more than that for Troy Fletcher of Rock Hill. It transformed the 64-pounder into a 10-year-old soapbox super weight and had his entire family beaming.
With that race, Troy won the local championship for his division, guaranteeing him a place in the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio, that will draw hundreds of competitors from across the United States and countries as far away as Germany and Japan. Race day is July 21.
"You would think that we won the lottery," said Troy's mother, Michelle Fletcher. "I raced and my two brothers raced when we were kids in Akron at the local, but we were never good enough to make it to the All-American. It's just amazing. All our relatives have already made sure they're getting that day off. We're getting shirts made, pins made. It's a really big deal."
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Soap box derby racing has been a national competition since 1934. Youths from 8 to 17 steer the lightweight cars as they roll down a hill. Two or three cars race at a time, with the winner of each match continuing in the competition.
Troy has been competing since he was 8. He built his car to All-American specifications from a kit with his father, Paul Fletcher.
During competition, racers crouch down low in the car and wear an aerodynamic helmet to reduce wind resistance. In this business, even a fraction of a second makes a difference. Last year, Troy narrowly missed a chance to go to the All-American, losing his race by only .009 seconds.
As intense as the sport can be, Troy keeps a relaxed attitude. He says racing down the hills is "fun." Going to Akron is "cool."
"I am kind of nervous about the three lanes," he admitted.
He is used to racing only one other car at a time, but to get through all the competitors fast enough, the All-American uses three lanes.
Troy plans to keep his tactics the same for the race.
"Just steer out to the edge and stay there," he said.
Cars tend to go faster near the side of the track, and senseless steering will only waste time, he said.
Four other members of the Huntersville Chapter also will be going to Akron, including Jacob Cash of York. There are about 40 members in the Huntersville Chapter that includes counties in North and South Carolina.
Derby racing provides a friendly way for youths to compete, director Myers said.
"Some kids don't excel in team sports. They're individualists," he said. "It's an individual sport; this gives them another activity they can do and still compete against other kids."
It's also a good way for families to spend time together, he said.
"You got to have Mom and Dad's support to do this, and to be competitive, you've got to have a child that wants to compete," he said. "When you mix the two together, that's what soap box derby is about."
Even for a mother who grew up participating in derbies, watching her son compete makes Michelle Fletcher nervous.
"I can't look," she said. "I see him take off, and then I just have to turn."
When he gets to the bottom, win or lose, his parents said it doesn't matter.
"If he wins, he wins. If he loses, he loses," Michelle Fletcher said. "When he comes out of the hill, we're like, 'Good job, get them next time.'"