HOULTON, Maine — It takes more than gravity to win a soap box derby. And on June 11, 22 hopefuls vying for a win and a slot in an international competition in Akron, Ohio, put their skills and ingenuity to the test during the 25th running of the Northern Maine Soap Box Derby on Derby Hill in Houlton.
After 24 double-elimination heats, with some of the gravity-powered cars clocking more than 30 miles per hour, Super Stock driver David Dahlk and Stock driver Gabriel Sloat each took a first-place win in their divisions and are headed to Ohio later this summer to compete in the prestigious All-American Soap Box Derby.
The race, the only Akron-qualifying competition in the state, marked the 27th year for the Houlton competition that started in 1996. It was only the 25th running due to a two-year pandemic-related hiatus. Soap box derbies were once popular in Maine towns, but by early in the 21st century, only Houlton and Bangor remained. Bangor held its last soap box derby in 2009.
At one time, the Houlton derby was believed to be the largest qualifying race in the world with more that 200 drivers, according to Andy Mooers, past organizer who has been working on the derby since its inception.
“We were happy that we could actually have the race this year,” co-organizer Karen Fitzpatrick said. Most years, several members of the Houlton committee go to St. John, New Brunswick, and put on that town’s race. In turn, St. John gives the Houlton race $2,400. But Houlton didn’t have that money this year, Fitzpatrick said.
Nonetheless, Houlton businesses and residents came through with generous donations for this year’s event, she said.
The races were held on Military Street, or better known as “Drake’s Hill” in the local community, with the road closed to traffic for the two-day event. After a large donation, derby organizers built Derby Hill at the Houlton Community Park specifically for the races.
This year’s event featured about 20 youths.
It all starts with a $500 Akron-approved gravity-powered car kit that gets assembled in about four to six hours. Then racers must learn the feel of the car on the track, braking, aerodynamics, weight distribution and focus.
“It’s the little things, balancing the car, the alignment, sitting lower in the car,” said Andy Mooers, past organizer who has been working on the derby since its inception. “It’s fun to see how a kid learns to be better.”
Safety is the No. 1 priority with sportsmanship a close second, Mooers said. Throughout the day, cars and drivers are weighed and cars are checked to make sure brake pads don’t need changing, steering is good and all parts of the car are in working order. When brake pads are wearing thin, kids can crash into a field of orange cones placed below the finish line to help them stop.
To keep it fair, racers switch lanes and wheels for each new heat.
The top eight results in the Stock Division were: 1, Gabriel Sloat; 2, Gabe Williams; 3, Haley Flewelling; 4, Tessa Wells; 5, Finn Sherman; 6, Cameron Austin; 7, Scarlett Wells; and 8, Haven Hanning.
The top eight results in the Super Stock Division were: 1, David Dahlk; 2, Lillie Henderson; 3, Parker Foster; 4, Addyson Lynds; 5, Gemma Wells; 6, Patrick Crane; 7, Ava Wells; and 8, Caden Flewelling.
The following youths were presented with special awards – Sportsmanship Awards, William Schwenk (Super Stock) and Scarlet Trickey (Stock); Committee Awards, Jerry Boyce (Stock) and Richard Mitchell (Super Stock); VIP Car Award for Best Tech, Scarlett Wells (Stock) and Patrick Crane (Super Stock); and Best Decorated, Noah Sloat (Stock) and Carsyn Williams (Super Stock).
Houlton’s Frank Thompson has been involved with the race for 22 years and from the sound of it, soap box just gets into your blood. He currently sponsors seven cars, but only five ran in this year’s derby.
Prior to the actual derby, organizers hold a tech day at Derby Hill for new drivers to get some practice in, Thompson said.
Two of Mooers’ children advanced to the Akron derby. But he said the Soap Box Derby is about much more than winning. It’s about sportsmanship and supporting each other. If the $500 for a kit is more than a family can afford, Fitzpatrick encourages kids to seek sponsors for their cars or to contact the derby committee for assistance. And cars are often passed on within families.
On June 11, sisters Gemma and Ava Wells raced against each other. Ava said it’s tough to compete against her sister, but it’s a competition. The two came within seconds of the other, with Gemma inching into fifth place and Ava into seventh.
“I love the feel of the wind on my face,” Gemma Wells said.