The first race of the Ninth Annual Greater Los Angeles Soap Box Derby didn’t begin until 10 a.m., but volunteers had been setting up long before then, the bulk of setup occurring since 7 that morning. Different local groups volunteered a hand to pull the derby together. The Flintridge Prep Key Club arrived early to sell morning pastries and coffee. Boy Scout Troop 502 kept lanes clear by towing cars in after they crossed the finish line. And the St. Francis High School football team loaded and unloaded cars onto a trailer that ferried cars up and down the hill.
Races were conducted in accordance to All-American Soap Box Derby (AASBD) rules in a double-elimination tournament format involving a main bracket and consolation bracket. For the first heat, names were drawn and paired together at random and following matchups depended on bracket results. Each matchup heat consisted of two races down the hill, called phases. After the first phase, cars switch lanes and swap tires. The wheel swap is to ensure fairness since wheels and wheel bearings can significantly influence the outcome of a race. As the first car crosses the finish line, it trips an electronic timer, and the second car turns the timer off. At the conclusion of the heat, the timer differentials for the two phases are summed up and whoever has the largest time differential is the winner.
“In soap box derby, a win or loss hangs on one-thousandth of a second,” said Pete Gallagher, a race official controlling the release of cars from the start line.
Brittany Strahan, who placed second in the Super Stock Division and has competed in soap box derby for five years, gave further explanation. Because a race is determined by fractions of a second every factor that could contribute to the speed must be considered. First, for instance, the car needs to be the maximum total weight; a little lighter would mean going slower than the opponent. Second, a driver needs to familiarize themselves with the race strip, noting small dips in the road that could increase speed as well as obstacles to avoid like manhole locations and even painted lines. Third there are details in construction to consider such the flatness of the axel and the placement of weight within the car.
Soap box derby athletes spend hours on the road travelling all over California to weekend competitions and a single competition often lasts the entire day. Just the construction of the car involves a tiresome amount of care and effort, but racers explain it’s this level of commitment that brings family members together.
Consider the Fernandez family for instance who contributed five racers to the day’s competition.
“It’s sort of a tradition. Our family comes together every year for this,” said Cammie Fernandez, who competed for her first time. “I’ve always wanted to try it.”
Thirty-one young racers gather at the top of Michigan Hill. One waits patiently in the cockpit of his car discussing strategy with his father. Another leans back confidently and continues to chat with his family. Others can be seen gazing down the hill anxiously scouting out the lanes in anticipation. This race means more than becoming local champion; it means a ticket to every soap box racer’s dream, the national finals in Akron, Ohio.
“I’m so excited. I thought it never ever would happen,” said Mollie Pineda, nine-year old Stock Division champion. “It’s really awesome. I’ve waited all my life to go to Akron.”
Pineda placed fifth in the Stock Division last year. This year Pineda, driving her white Mollie mobile with floral decal, after losing her first match to Daniel Siela would not take no for an answer, and successfully climbed the ranks to meet Siela again for a rematch in a showdown to claim first. Entering the finals match as the challenger, she won the first heat with a 0.14 second timer differential successfully forcing a runoff which she won in a double-phase win with a timer differential of 0.026 seconds.
In a rare occurrence, not just the Stock Division but all three division final matches were forced into runoffs. AASBD rules state that a racer must lose twice to be eliminated; thus, a runoff occurs when the challenger from the consolation bracket manages to give a loss to the King or Queen of the hill, a title given to the undefeated racer at the top of the main bracket. Think of a runoff as Game 7 after the challenger wins Game 6 to tie.
In the Super Stock Division, Brittany Strahan stopped an impressive win streak by first time racer, nine-year old Allie Fernandez. Strahan, daughter of professional racer Harold Strahan, had already qualified for Akron as a Masters Division rally champ, but was attempting to complete her set with a qualification as a Super Stock racer. She met Queen of the hill, Carlee Demase, in the final match. Although the match went into a runoff, Demase won the second heat with an overall 0.024 timer differential to take first place. This is the second consecutive year for Demase as a local champ, having won the Masters Division last year.
The Masters Division proved to be the most eventful of the divisions this year. Lynley Fernandez from La Crescenta admirably persevered through each race despite encountering multiple mechanical malfunctions.
Fernandez noticed problems early on, having to even halt her trial run to have her car examined. A second malfunction would occur after the battle for Queen of the Hill.
During the battle for Queen of the Hill, Fernandez faced off against Farrah Johnson. The cars were set into the starting block; Johnson in lane one and Fernandez in lane two. With the switch of a lever the cars were simultaneously released. Johnson shifted smoothly into her lane and sprinted forward in good rhythm. Suddenly, Johnson’s car began to veer left.
She lost control and crashed into the left hay bale wall coming to a stop. Friends, family, and paramedics rushed to her side. After a few moments of nervous silence, she was confirmed to be without serious injury. However, the crash had cut her heel and rendered her car un-raceable. The race was recorded as a non-finish.
“The steering went out. I was trying to go right and the car kept going left,” said Johnson of her accident.
Right after Johnson’s accident, Fernandez’s car sped pass the finish line and similarly flew into the hay bales at the end of the strip.
“The brake pad fell off and the axels ripped through the cardboard,” explained Fernandez.
Technicians immediately went to work quickly stripping the car down for operation. Once the problem was located the car was expertly fixed and reassembled within minutes. With the car restored once again, Fernandez prepared for the finals.
The Masters Division finals saw the pairing between challenger Wolfie Ruddell and Queen of the Hill Fernandez. Ruddell, a four time Akron veteran, approached the race calmly and would prove to be a difficult challenger.
Although Fernandez showed a lot of heart having risen like a phoenix through the brackets, Ruddell effectively won the first heat and ultimately completed his victory with a 0.101 time differential in the runoff.