At the top of the hill two drivers made their final adjustments before the starting lever is pulled. Two helmets tilted downhill, each with a set of darting eyes. The eyes are all that can be seen as the young drivers crouch as deeply into their derby cars as possible and gaze down the track of the Paul Bates Raceway.
A welcome pat on the back from a parent and a âyesâ¦sirâ is followed by a moving lever.
Gravity, aerodynamics, driving skill and craftsmanship determine which car will cross the finish line first.
The Culpeper All American Soap Box Derby marked a decade of excellence last weekend with a smoothly run two-day format that witnessed a number of firsts. The event was managed by the Culpeper Derbyâs Junior Committee for the first time, the derby covered two days, a Super Kids category was added and a new roadway sign was unveiled in memory of two derby drivers who continue to inspire.
Of course some things remained constant, including a family atmosphere that rivals anything that the late great painter Norman Rockwell could drag a brush across. It is pure Americana.
A positive spirit permeated nearly every aspect of this yearâs derby from snow cones to wheel pins. Hundreds of parents served as âpit crewsâ for their drivers and hundreds of fans lined the track under a blazing sun.
The Culpeper Derbyâs Junior Committee members essentially filled the shoes of the eventâs most notable organizers Frankie Gilmore and Tony Troilo.
The pair of derby icons moved about the derby with a new freedom and a large measure of pride.
âIâm so proud of our junior committee. See Suzi Windland moving everywhere…sheâs me this weekend,â said Frankie Gilmore, director of the Piedmont Area Soap Box Derby Foundation, with a wide smile. âOur committee members are out here running the show this year and they have filled our shoes flawlessly. They essentially grew up within the derby from 8- and 9-year-olds into the great people youâre seeing today. I literally have goose bumps I am so thrilled. My biggest dilemma was finding a roll of duct tape.â
It was a true labor of love for the young men and women taking charge for the first time.
Junior committeeâs executive members Suzi Windland, Sean Brown and Brandon Feagan managed all the logistics and kept the event on schedule along with fellow committee members.
âIt has been an amazing experience,â said Windland minutes before the final awards. She will enter James Madison University this fall. âI think the Super Kids races were my favorite part of the weekend. Itâs what the derby is all about, itâs a family.â
Hunter Chapman also a Junior Committee member cited the âderby as a powerful force in his life from an early age.â He explained that he hopes that committee members will serve as ambassadors and examples of how young racers can continue to help with the derby.
The Super Kids is a category of races for children with special needs. The concept was implemented in Culpeper this year for the first time and it had eight young drivers.
The loudest cheers of the derby erupted during the final heat of the Super Kids race.
The specially constructed cars were driven by Chapman and Brown, who rode side-by-side with the two finalists, Miguel Chapman and Alex Procino.
âHe will always remember this day. Seeing Alex smile throughout the races in the derby and in this moment is amazing,â said Roger Renshaw, the childâs father. âThe kids really have pride in this.â
That pride was evident as Alex was encircled by media and cheering fans.
âFour years ago, he did not speak, now heâs on the A-B honor roll at Emerald Hill,â added Renshaw. âWe are so thankful for the Super Kids race. We started this program in April and I cannot say enough great things about Marty Carroll and the derby committee.â
Remarkable stories have always been a part of the success of the derby. There have been stories of heartbreak followed by renewal, losses that have created heroes and stories that exemplify courage and love of family.
One of the greatest examples of that spirit is embodied in a 16-year-old junior from Eastern View High School named Reagan Flemming. She was close friends with Andrew Windland, who passed away in 2012 after a courageous battle with cancer.
âI had Ewing Sarcoma, a bone cancer,â said Flemming. âMy doctors have said that Iâm cancer free after lots of surgeries and treatments. My racer is painted lavender to create awareness for all those facing a battle with cancer.â
âBut when Iâm up on the hill at the starting line my mind only focuses on the track and the race,â she added.
Perhaps the greatest element of the derby is the way it draws in families and provides them with a vehicle to create lasting memories of a shared experience. A time to share a common goal, to compete and to learn about themselves and their community.
âExperiencing the derby alongside my daughter Camryn really brought us together,â said Rosalyn Patterson, of Brandy Station, whose daughter was a first time derby participant. âThe staff of the derby really made us feel welcome and helped us understand all the elements of racing.â
âI was proud to be the first girl to drive a Kid Central sponsored car. I was a little nervous at first, but I managed to do pretty well,â said Camryn. âI want to keep on racing.â
Marshall Conner is a regular contributor to Culpeper Times.