Soapbox derby takes off

CNJ staff photo: Liliana Castillo Valon Smith of Clovis concentrates on the course ahead as she waiting for her race to begin during Saturday’s Soapbox Derby. This is the third year Smith, 12, has participated in the derby.

By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer

After a friendly sibling race, Valon Smith figures it’s going to get faster, and more competitive from here.

Valon Smith, 12, edged out little sister Marin Smith for the Clovis Soapbox Derby title, earning a trip to the national finals July 25 in Akron, Ohio.

“The hill’s a lot bigger there,” said Smith, riding in her third derby. “You don’t go 15 (mph in Akron), you go 33.”

The Smith sisters and 13 other races took to a blocked-off Sycamore Street Saturday, riding fiberglass cars with intricate and not-so-intricate designs. The champions circle included Valon with a red car sponsored by the Master’s Center, where her parents work, Marin’s gray car and an unpainted car raced by third-place finisher Cody Pinder.

As the races worked their way through a double-elimination bracket, the pattern was simple. The racers go down Sycamore Street, starting near the Yucca Middle School parking lot and finishing at the intersection of 14th Street. The hill on Sycamore is accentuated by a wooden ramp with lanes for two cars.

The cars are loaded onto the top of the ramp, where they are held in place by a pair of small paddles. In comes the driver, which brings the car-plus-driver weight to 230 pounds — each car receives extra weights to reach that number so driver size isn’t an advantage.

When the paddles are released, gravity and the drivers handle the rest.

“There’s a steering wheel right here, and you try to keep it straight so you don’t crash,” said 13-year-old Taylore Chavez, showing off her car during a long break between heats. “There’s not much else to it.”

After every two races, a volunteer drives down to 14th Street with a truck, and hauls the four competing cars back up to the Yucca parking lot. Racers go against each other twice in each round, and in the event of a split the racer with the largest margin of victory is the winner. Even small differences in normal road deterioration can change a racer’s fortune, so Erwin said each racer has to compete on each side of Sycamore.

No matter which side you race on, the goal is to stay close to the line, Chavez said, but not too close. To lower the risks of a crash, racers are disqualified if they cross both of the center yellow lines on Sycamore.

Even at the slow speeds, Chavez said the derby was something she enjoyed.

“She likes NASCAR,” said her mother, Tracy Chavez, “and this is probably the closest she’ll get.”