It is the second largest soapbox derby in the world: one track, 135 drivers, three champions, and not one engine.
“It doesn’t have a motor, it runs on gravity,” Thom Pellikaan explains, describing the soapbox derby car that arrives on the doorstep of each driver as a kit to be assembled personally. “And all the soapbox derby cars, when they leave the starting gates, weigh exactly the same.”
After final inspections for mass, quality and durability last Saturday, all cars were impounded in a warehouse until race day, when drivers from 8 to 17 years old will speed to the bottom of Blue Ridge Avenue in downtown Culpeper, two at a time. The three tiers of competition are the stock, super stock and masters car divisions, and the winner from each will compete in the world championship All-American Soapbox Derby in Akron, Ohio this July.
Pellikaan was first bit by the derby bug in 2003, when Frankie Gilmore and Tony Troilo asked his help in organizing a soapbox derby race in Culpeper County to commemorate Rosson and Troilo Motor Company’s 75th anniversary. That first race symbolized a “thank you” to the local community for decades of faithful business.
After positive feedback, Gilmore decided to make the race an annual event. And from that first race, with only 35 drivers in 2003, the soapbox derby has expanded dramatically, and now invites drivers from six counties: Culpeper, Orange, Louisa, Fauquier, Madison and Rappahannock.
“As far as Rappahannock County goes, we had no drivers,” Pellikaan said. “And we thought, the best way to get drivers is to go to those areas that support the entire community, but places that may not have the resources to purchase a car. So we thought of the fire departments.”
After raising about $3,000 from anonymous donors, Pellikaan approached the county volunteer fire departments, beginning with the Castleton Volunteer Fire Department, and presented each with a derby car, at no expense, provided that they were interested in getting involved. The Castleton, Sperryville and Flint Hill volunteer fire departments jumped at the opportunity, and will be represented by four cars driven by Rappahannock County residents, like Tobias Harris of Rappahannock County Elementary School, who will man the Sperryville Volunteer Fire Department car.
“I’m really excited,” Harris said, grinning next to his fire-engine-red soapbox car at the Sperryville parade last Friday. This is his first year racing, and he is a little anxious about the level of competition.
This year, other Rappahannock County businesses and organizations, including the Inn at Little Washington, Blue Ridge Mac, the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office, Castleton Festival, Rose Hill Veterinary Practice, Copper Fox Antiques and Wakefield Country Day School bought cars and recruited young drivers.
“This is an investment in youth,” Pellikaan said. “And there’s a lot of youth out there who would love to have the challenge and be able to participate.”
Above all, this race is for the kids. Drivers learn sportsmanship, patience, and dedication during their six months of building, painting, registering and racing their cars. And it all comes down to the big race on Saturday.
“The eyes of these youngsters, when they sit down in these cars, and they’re on the top of Blue Ridge Avenue, and the pride you see shining from them, makes it all worthwhile,” Pellikaan said, beaming. “And let’s hope we can bring some trophies back to Rappahannock this year!”
The following photo gallery includes pictures, courtesy of Caitlin Troilo, of Rappahannock’s 14 entries in Saturday’s race in Culpeper: