Rappahannock County’s youngest racecar drivers made a strong showing at last weekend’s 10th annual Culpeper Soap Box Derby, with six of the county’s 14 competitors bringing home trophies — including first place in the Super Stock division.
The All-American Soap Box Derby has been called “The Greatest Amateur Racing Event in the World,” according to the organization’s website. The derby is a youth racing program which has run nationally since 1934, and locally in Culpeper since 2003. Young drivers between the ages of 8 and 17 participate in the races, in which they steer gravity-powered cars down a steeply sloping track, reaching speeds of nearly 40 miles per hour.
The races are divided into three divisions: Masters, Super Stock and Stock. Masters drivers are experienced drivers between the ages of 10 and 17; Super Stock drivers are also between 10 and 17, but have less track experience; and Stock drivers are between 8 and 13 years of age. Local Soap Box Derby winners from each division are awarded a $1,000 cash prize to help fund the trip to the World Championship finals held each July at Derby Downs in Akron, Ohio.
Culpeper’s races were held last Saturday and Sunday (June 22-23) at Paul Bates Raceway.
Coming in first out of 40 competitors in the Super Stock division Sunday afternoon, and driving a bright red car sponsored by the Flint Hill Volunteer Fire Department, was 13-year-old Gabe Beroza of Sperryville.
For Beroza, making it to Akron was not just a competitive goal, but a personal one. Beroza moved here from Akron just two years ago, and went into the competition hoping not just for bragging rights and a chance to compete at the World Championships, but an opportunity to return to his old hometown.
“I’ve got some friends there I’ve been wanting to see,” said Beroza, a rising seventh grader at Huntly’s Wakefield Country Day School. “Soap Box is really big in Akron, so everybody assumed I’d had some special experience since I’m from there. I’d never heard of it before I moved here.”
Beroza said he wanted to race for some time, but originally envisioned “something with a motor . . . that you could crash into other cars.” He told his grandmother, Sperryville real estate broker Cheri Woodard, that he wanted to get involved with racing. He eventually settled on the Soap Box Derby after talking with race organizer Thom Pellikaan of Woodville.
Last year, Beroza’s first year of competition racing, was nothing but encouraging: He finished second in the Super Stock class, missing returning to Akron by just six-hundredths of a second. This year, he was victorious – he’ll race in Akron on July 27, something he says he’s “been dying to do.”
The trophy he received Saturday – his fourth overall derby trophy – is actually a few inches taller than the 5-foot-3-inch Beroza, who can’t resist speculating on what a potential state championship trophy might look like.
“Do they just keep getting bigger?” Beroza wondered.
Beroza admits, with a grin, that he can barely fit into his current Super Stock car, and plans to try switching to driving in the Masters class next year. “Masters cars are longer, but they’re narrower, so I don’t know if my shoulders will fit,” Beroza says, scrunching up his shoulders.
Two other Rappahannock County drivers also placed in the Super Stock division. Ben Kopjanski, a rookie driver from Boston headed into fifth grade at Rappahannock County Elementary School, came in sixth; his car was sponsored by the Castleton Festival. In eighth place was Grayson Galeone of Flint Hill, a rising seventh-grader at WCDS, whose car was sponsored by the school.
In the Stock division, three young Rappahannock-sponsored drivers earned trophies to take home. Coming in fourth out of 43 competitors was Domenic DelGrosso, whose car was sponsored by Cub Scout Pack 123 in Washington. Jaden Torosian finished in sixth place; his car was sponsored by RCES. Ian Heffron, a rising fourth grader at Wakefield Country Day School, drove a car sponsored by the Rappahannock’s “Lunch Bunch,” and placed eighth.
Torosian, 9, is a rising fourth grader at RCES. This was his second year competing in the derby, and he said he would recommend it to any kid looking for an exciting challenge. “It’s really fun, and you learn stuff as you go down,” said Torosian. “You like, learn how to steer and all that stuff, and then, when it rains, it’s hard to stop.”
He said he was learning a lot about mechanics, since even the youngest Soap Box Derby drivers have to perform hands-on maintenance on the cars. Using power tools, he said, “is fun. Changing the brake pad is really hard, though, because sometimes you can strip the bolt, and then we have to cut it all.”
Heffron, 9, also learned a lesson about brake pads and stopping power when he experienced an unexpected brake failure Sunday afternoon, sending him careening at over 30 miles an hour through the line of cones at the track’s end, into a gravel pit designed for emergency stops.
The rookie driver said that he was surprised by the failure, but not scared.
“I was like, what the heck is happening?” said Heffron. “I was confused . . . I knew I’d changed the brake pad, so why wasn’t I stopping?” It turned out that he had hit the brakes a second too soon, causing the brake pad, which comes into direct contact with the track, to get hung up on the raised bumps that let the drivers know they’ve reached the finish line. The friction tore the brake pad completely off its mount.