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December 04, 2016
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Downhill racers rely on gravity power; Welcome to the Port Jervis Soap Box Derby

Photos by Billy Templeton

PORT JERVIS, NY — While many from the Upper Delaware region traveled south to watch stock cars burn thousands of gallons of gasoline at the Pocono Raceway on Sunday, June 8, a smaller, yet just as passionate fan base gathered to watch a different kind of stock car barrel down Sussex Street in Port Jervis, NY—only these cars burned no fuel and were driven by children.

The 15th annual Port Jervis Soap Box Derby featured 143 drivers, their ages ranging from eight to 19, all racing to be crowned champion of their respective divisions and to earn an all-expenses paid trip to Akron, OH to compete in the All-American Soap Box Derby.

Soapbox racing may hearken back to the image of a fruit crate retrofitted with wheels or an old, souped-up wagon with a makeshift steering wheel that may or may not actually turn the deathtrap, but the aerodynamic, fiberglass cars that careened downhill on Sunday were nothing of the sort. Often travelling in excess of 30 mph, the modern, gravity-powered derby cars utilize standardized wheels and precision ball bearings with added weight to neutralize any unfair advantage.

Thirteen-year-old Julia Legato and 12-year-old Marissa Van Winkle like spending time with and competing against their friends, but it is the thrill of the race that draws them back each year. “I love feeling the wind blow in my face and hearing the crowd cheer,” says Julia.

The entire community comes out to support this event, from parents and neighbors cheering on the racers to local politicians and businesses sponsoring individual cars, drivers and even offering college scholarships for past derby drivers. “Without the support of this community, this event could never happen,” says Wayne Addy, director of the derby.

Four champions were crowned, each winning in his or her respective division and earning the trip to compete against top racers from across the world. Ryan Costello, AlexaGessner, Hannah Bisland and Jaelyn Csencsits will represent Port Jervis in the city of Akron, where the championship has been held since 1937. The local racing season will end after this race, but the season began in early March as racers started practicing for the big day.

The four divisions consist of Stock, Super Stock, Masters and Super Kids, each providing a different set of regulations to maintain a competitive balance. Although two cars race down the hill at the same time, racers are really competing against the clock, as the top times advance in the tournament. Although the racers are focused on achieving the fastest times, many volunteers are committed to making sure the children are safe and unharmed if something should go wrong.

“Safety is a serious concern for everyone involved with the race,” says planning committee member Tonya Addy. All new racers are required to practice driving their cars on three separate occasions. Experienced drivers practice at least twice before race day. Unfortunately, accidents still happen, but the Port Jervis EMS and fire company were on site to handle any emergency that may arise.

The Port Jervis Soap Box Derby has grown into one of the world’s largest such races largely because of the vast support from the community. The all-volunteer planning committee works all year to ensure that the event will be rewarding for all participants, spectators and sponsors, and judging by the cheers, smiles and positive atmosphere, the derby will continue to be successful for years to come.

[Note: Not pictured are this year’s scholarship winners Aaron Aumick and Kendra Addy, who are graduating this year. Hannah Bisland, the Masters winner shown at right, also won a scholarship.]