Championships aren’t the only thing being won at the Piedmont Area Soap Box Derby – hearts have been won too.
Committee members of the Piedmont Area derby recently hosted a party honoring derby racers and volunteers who have not only sped down the hill, they’ve sped into love.
Brandon Feagan won the Master’s Division at the All-American Derby in 2008 and has raced in the Piedmont Area derby since 2005. Growing up, his father Charlie – owner of the Culpeper Machine Supply – would always ask him why he didn’t date a girl from the derby.
Piedmont Area Soap Box Derby committee member Frankie Gilmore still laughs at his answer.
“Brandon’s answer was always ‘they’re icky,’” she said with a laugh.
His wife, Danielle Hunley, started racing in 2009. The two started dating in 2013 and were married in 2016.
When he and Danielle got married, it was a given – I can’t tell you how many people said ‘Brandon married an icky girl,’” Gilmore chuckled.
For the Feagans, the derby wasn’t even the catalyst for their relationship. They had raced together for years and went to high school together, graduating from Culpeper County HIgh School in 2011. It wasn’t until they went to community college together that the romantic feelings came faster than a car down Paul Bates Raceway.
“It just happened,” Brandon said. “She had a close friend that was a longtime family friend of mine and they asked me to go catfishing. We started talking and the rest is history.”
The fact that they had raced together in the master’s division helped strengthen their bond, Brandon said. But growing up, he never imagined he would marry a derby girl.
“It never even crossed my mind, she was another derby friend,” he said with a chuckle.
Once they became a couple, they couldn’t wait to tell the derby family – knowing they would be thrilled.
The night of the second derby fundraiser for Paul Bates Raceway, in April 2013, the duo were inseparable. No matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t get Gilmore to notice that they were more than just “derby friends.”
“Those two were trying to get me to notice,” Gilmore said. “I was busy and running around and Brandon grabbed me and said ‘do you see anything odd.’ Danielle was standing right next to him and I was like no, just the two of you are constantly in my way … and it hit me.”
Feagan played a role in one of the other derby romances too, helping introduce longtime friends Hunter Chapman and Kay Graves.
The Chapmans were married in March of this year and now live in Fort Mill, South Carolina. Hunter is a flight instructor and Kay is a bond trader.
Hunter started racing at age 8 in 2003 and as soon as he and Kay started dating, he brought her into the derby family. She was in charge of the heat sheets while he handled the starting blocks at the top of the hill.
The volunteering at the derby helped bring the two closer together.
“I think that anytime you can spend more time with each other, it’s a good thing,” Kay said.
It also highlighted a side of Hunter, Gilmore explained.
“We were talking one day and Kay said that she sees a side of Hunter at the derby and that’s one of the reasons she loves him,” Gilmore said.
Kay said the derby family is important to the couple, pointing out that the Feagans are coming to visit them to celebrate their one year wedding anniversary in a couple of months. It’s those bonds that she and Hunter hope to pass on their children in the future.
“We haven’t found a derby down here yet, but I’m sure we will, it’s something to look forward to in the future,” Kay said.
The third couple of Soap Box love birds met through another sport – swimming. Suzi Windland and Drew Kelliher met while swimming for BASS when they were 11 or 12, he said. They started dating in between their senior year of high school and their freshman year of college, and he was quickly roped into the derby.
Suzi started racing in 2006 and fell in love with the sport. She, along with Feagan and Chapman, were some of the first members of the derby’s junior committee. Along with longtime racer and friend Sean Brown, the group spoke to the National Convention at the World Championships for the race directors.
“All three of them have been huge in the success of the derby,” Gilmore said. “All three of them were part of the junior committee and all three still continue to volunteer when they can.”
So it only made sense that Suzi would share her love for the derby with Drew. He quickly joined in and while being too old to race, found other ways to contribute. For the past four years, he’s been the voice of the derby – announcing the racers as they come down the track.
“I think the people is what makes the derby special,” he said. “Everyone is enthusiastic and helpful. You can feel the love for everyone and for the organization.”
The pair have a wedding date set for May 26, 2018, conveniently before next year’s derby. While life may sometimes get in the way, Kelliher said the derby is something they’ll cling to.
“It’s something that will stick with us for a long time,” he said. “With Suzi’s interest in teaching science, engineering and math and me being an engineer, it’s close to both our hearts.”
When it comes time for a family, he said he wouldn’t force his kids into the derby or swimming, but he’ll highly recommend it.
“It’s a great thing to do,” he said.
In the end, the derby is all about family – and Gilmore couldn’t be happier that more families are being grown out of the derby.