Soap Box Derby’s success rolls along

Tom and Jack Massie discuss Jack’s last run down the track on Blue Ridge Avenue in Culpeper. Photo by Alex Sharp VII.

By Marshall Conner
Special to the Rappahannock News
The success of an event often has a direct corollary to the decibel level rising from the fans.

If that is true then Saturday’s Eighth Annual Culpeper Soap Box Derby was a roaring success. The sweltering heat didn’t stifle the cheers, whistles and shouts of encouragement emanating from the multitude of tents lining Blue Ridge Avenue. There was a sense of purpose as volunteers shuttled derby cars up and down the hill and drivers made last adjustments to the little race cars they had invested so much love, time and creativity into.

Volunteers manned the starting point atop the hill where Tony Troilo, president of the Culpeper Derby committee,. was stationed with a microphone and ready to engage the lever to start the racers. His sister, Frankie Gilmore, moved up and down the course at a hectic pace as she worked to solve problems, encouraged her volunteers with hugs and gave interviews to the various media representatives.

It’s a labor of love for the Troilo family ― it’s always been.

At the start of each summer, the Culpeper Soap Box Derby has held its large annual race down Blue Ridge Avenue―that big hill located alongside Yowell Meadow Park. It is expected that next year the derby will move to a new location a few miles down Sperryville Pike (U.S. Route 522) to Laurel Valley.

Lined up behind the starting gate tent this year was row after row of young racers eager to have their time at the top of the hill.
“I know that it’s awesome going down that hill,” said Matthew Hall, 12, of Culpeper. “As a driver you try to lean forward and keep your head low.”

His race car was painted to resemble a “Flying Tiger” jet of World War II fame.

“My dad and I like military history so we painted our race car like an old fighter plane,” said young Hall.

“Each year he’s raced we added another flag on his racer, like the way the pilots stenciled kills in the war,” said his father, Lynn Hall. “I think I’m also becoming more technically savvy each year we’ve been in the derby.”

Another race car had a sleek, metallic, high-tech look complete with an Apple logo. The derby car was sponsored by Blue Ridge Mac of Woodville.

“It’s a new race car and this is our first derby,” said John Switzer of Rappahannock. “My boss and I thought it would be great to sponsor a car and racer. I became involved largely because I used to be a carpenter before I entered the computer business. It was a natural fit. Once we had the car we went and found our driver, Marcus Thompson. We all thought he was perfect for the job.”

Switzer’s driver selected for his “calm, cool, collected” demeanor was also optimistic about his chances.

“I’m comfortable with the car and I think that the shiny metallic paint will catch the light and give me an edge, especially if my competitor looks at it. It might blind them for a few seconds,” said Thompson with a sly grin. “I have a few friends from my school here today racing.”

“What a great day of racing,” said Rappahannock’s Thom Pellikaan, who helped organize the county’s record entry of 14 drivers in the annual race. “The greatest achievement came from rookie driver Chris Corbin of Amissville, who captured a fifth-place trophy competing against 68 other drivers in the Stock division. Julia Wood, another first-year participant driving for the Castleton Festival, and Shane O’Heir, competing for the third year in a car sponsored by the Inn at Little Washington, kept their supporters energized as they advanced through several rounds of competition.”

Another race car stood out for its femininity, an all-pink masterpiece created by Ashton Souder, 11, and her dad Jonathan Jenkins.

“I love pink, what can I say,” said Ashton with a grin. “My room at home is pink, but it was my dad’s idea too. I’m hoping for at least a second round appearance. This is my second year in the race.”

She went on to compliment her fan club.

“My family is my fan club,” she said before donning her helmet.

Second-year racer Daisy Harrell, 11, of Locust Grove and her father, Doug, sported a bright yellow race car with hand-painted dragons. The artwork would later earn the Harrells a first place award for Best in Show in the Super Stock division for her yellow ride with dragons on it.

In the near future lies the promise of a new track and location, in the rear-view mirror is a tradition that began back in the summer of 2002. It was that year that Tony Troilo and sister, Frankie, contemplated just how to mark Rosson & Troilo’s 75th anniversary.

“The family wanted to do something for the community, something that would give back for all the patronage the community had shown the family for the past 75 years. We decided that a community event involving families would be our anniversary celebration,” according to Gilmore, director of the Culpeper Soap Box Derby. “Thirty-five drivers participated in a double elimination race that took the town by storm. With the help of other area businesses, families, the Town of Culpeper and many volunteers the race continues to be a huge success.”

The race’s origins continue to be a source of pride for Gilmore and her family.

Gilmore’s father Joe Troilo, 90, was also at the races. He recalled his first soap box derby experience in a 1936 derby held in Vandergrift, Pa.

With a knowing smile he added, “That sure was a lot of people out there.”

In a story written by Frankie’s sister Pat Gravely, about her dad’s first derby race he recounted the experience:
“I put my heart into that car but no money. It didn’t cost me a cent, which was a good thing since I didn’t have any money. Everything was salvaged. I got baby buggy wheels from my neighbor whose children had outgrown their carriage. My little brother Nick helped me build a frame on two six-foot long boards that were about an inch thick. We put an orange crate from the corner grocer in the front and covered it with thin plywood to represent the motor. I even had brakes, though they were very crude. I would pull back on two sticks that had rubber attached to the bottom. That gave me better resistance from the street.

“Practically our whole town of 8,000 residents showed up for the race on that warm spring day. Everyone was excited. It was our town’s ‘Indianapolis 500,’ which was only 25 years old that year. The distance to race was about twice the distance kids travel in Culpeper today, but the hill wasn’t as steep as Blue Ridge Avenue.”

All bets are that the experience was the same for the 140 young racers Saturday so many years later.

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