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International Soap Box Derby racing at Westgate

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The fastest fun on four wheels, but without an engine or a sail, goes into its 11th year on Sunday 16 March, when Waitakere Rotary stages the West Auckland round of the International Soap Box Derby series on Westgate Drive.

soap box1The event has its origins in Dayton in Ohio, USA in 1934 and is now headquartered with a purpose built track at Akron, Ohio. It has been held annually in the US ever since with the exception of the World War 2 years, and has developed standardised, streamlined cars that must be used by any organisation wanting to run one of these events.

The franchised event has now spread to a number of countries, including New Zealand where the franchise is held by the New Zealand International Soap Box Derby Trust. Rotarians from the Rotary Clubs who race, including Waitakere Rotary, are the trustees. The West Auckland event is one of three rounds in New Zealand, with the winners from each round going forward to compete for the national title and travel to Akron to take part in an international event to choose a world champion. Riverhead School’s Henry Dyer won the international title in 2010.

The cars are handicapped like race horses, with weight added or subtracted to ensure that the combined weight of each driver and car is equal.

The core competition is between schools who are supplied with “Super Stock” cars. These cars are built in kitset form in the US to very precise standards to ensure that they are as equal and as safe as possible. The Rotary Clubs buy and supply them to schools who find sponsors and pay an entry fee. Each car will have a team of eight, aged between 10 and 17, and comprising at least four drivers and four pit crew per car.

The cars are disassembled at the end of the racing season and the next year’s teams have the task of assembling them (yeah right, tell that to the Dads!) and making them race ready for a safety inspection ahead of race day. Any that are below par must be brought to the required standard with spares provided by their Rotary Club. The racers themselves must wear a properly fitting helmet, trousers, long sleeved shirt and closed toe shoes.

It’s important for the students to be their own mechanics because if they get to go to Akron, they have to build their car when they get there. “Nevertheless, it’s very hard to get the parents to stand back and let the kids do the work,” says Heather Pattison, secretary of the Trust and immediate past President of Waitakere Rotary.

Heather also adds a plea to spectators to stay off the crash barriers.

Such has been the appeal of the event that, in addition to the Super Stocks for the schools, there are Masters cars for advanced drivers to use in demonstration races, and two “Corporate” cars for adults to try. Recently introduced are the “Super Kid” cars with room for a driver and a youngster with a disability. These don’t race but they allow youngsters with disabilities to participate in the thrill of the Soap Box derby.

Another new dimension that allows even more youngsters to participate is the video competition Heather Pattison introduced four years ago. She noted how many times Rotarians were told how the event created bonding between students, including some whose temperaments would never allow them to participate in the racing. A keen photographer, Heather saw the opportunity to introduce the video competition as a way to involve students who want to be involved but whose skills don’t run to driving or mechanics. It has been a great success.

Winning schools each year, get to keep the shell from their winning racers to put on permanent display. A new body is supplied for the running gear, for future competitions.

The Soap Box Derby is supported by The Trusts Community Foundation; another example of money raised in The Trusts venues being given back to the West Auckland community.