The All American Soap Box Derby is commonly referred to as “the greatest amateur racing event in the world.”
The derby was once a great spectacle in Buffalo – an annual summer qualifying race for the national final in Akron, Ohio. But, for a few years, it completely disappeared from Western New York.
In 2013, soapbox veteran Donald Lucarell of Hamburg decided to bring the event back.
He was confused as to why an event that used to draw crowds of hundreds of people in Buffalo had been completely abandoned in the mid-2000s. Additionally, he thought his young grandson might want to race as he did in 1946.
He got in touch with executives for the All-American Soap Box Derby to find out why Buffalo no longer held a regional qualifying event. He was relieved to find out the only thing holding the event back was the need for someone to run it.
“It was a job,” Lucarell said. “I have a grandson. I wanted my grandson to race. Because I raced when I was a kid, I wanted him to race. I called up and asked, ‘Why doesn’t Buffalo have a race? Then I asked, ‘What do you have to do to get a race? And they told me what to do.”
Lucarell brought the event back to Western New York last year with a race in Hamburg. The second annual All-American Soap Box Derby will be held again in Hamburg today, starting at 10 a.m. along Eighteen Mile Creek.
The event has 14 entrants – 13 boys and one girl between the ages of 7 and 17 – which Lucarell explained is a relatively small field.
The race is double elimination. Two cars race at a time, with the order determined by time trials. Each two-car heat has two parts. The cars switch lanes and wheels between the two parts to eliminate variables. Whoever has the lower time between the two races is deemed the winner of that heat.
The winner of the heat moves into a winner’s bracket, while the loser to a loser’s bracket. However, a racer isn’t eliminated until he or she loses two races.
The champion moves on to the national finals in Akron.
“We’d like to have stock and masters but we just don’t have enough kids yet,” Lucarell said.
When a youngster decides he is interested in racing, he purchases a kit that tells how to put the vehicle together.
“They buy a kit and then build them,” Lucarell said. “Their fathers usually help them or we have a clinic on how to build the cars. It takes about four hours to assemble a car.”
But not every family with children willing to participate can afford this cost. That’s where sponsors come in.
“It costs about $1,000 to put a kid in the race,” Lucarell said. “We get sponsors. If a kid wants to race and he doesn’t have the money, companies will sponsor him. They’ll either buy a quarter, half or full car and they’ll get their name put on the side.”
Delta Sonic and West Herr Collision are some of this year’s more prominent sponsors.
While some of the race entrants grew up around soap box racing, others are relatively new to the sport. Daniel O’Brien, 11, first heard of the sport last year.
“I found out about it through Cub Scouts,” he said.
O’Brien became interested in last year’s race but didn’t have any experience. His mother, Tracy Howard, knew little of the sport.
“I had heard of it, but I didn’t know anything about it,” Howard said.
O’Brien got a kit – partially sponsored by his orthodontist – and went to work on building his car.
People like Howard and her son are exactly why Lucarell wanted to bring the derby back to the Buffalo area – to get a new generation involved in the sport. But he knows he still has a long way to go.
Lucarell knows he will need more sponsors and more participation.