By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – With the cars lined along the top of the hill, Molly Allison looks ahead, ready to aim her craft toward the finish line. A couple of years ago, she thought she was done with the races, but a chance opportunity got her back into it.
As the race starts, she tries her hardest to steer the careening car in the best line, hoping to achieve victory.
Allison did earlier in June, winning the Cookeville Soap Box Derby's Masters division. Now, she sets her sights on a national championship in July at the 82nd annual FirstEnergy All-American Soap Box Derby at Derby Downs Track in Akron, Ohio, on July 20.
The recent Upperman High graduate and incoming Tech freshman, like her run in June, will be behind the wheel of the Tennessee Tech Athletics-sponsored car, representing Cookeville and Tech in her bid for a championship.
"To be on this stage is really cool," Allison said. "We've been trying to get to this point for 12 years as a family – I've raced for 10. We've gotten really, really close. We've gotten second place four times. It's just heartbreaking to get that far and not make it. It's really cool and we're excited to make it this far."
The FirstEnergy All-American Soap Box Derby has a storied tradition, dating back to the early 1930s. Dayton Daily News photographer Myron Scott put together an impromptu race for 19 kids. So much interest created a second race with prize money on the line with 362 racers showing up in "homemade cars built of orange crates, sheet tin, wagon and baby-buggy wheels."
Scott earned a copyright to Soap Box Derby and convinced Chevrolet to become a sponsor as they held the first All-American Soap Box Derby in Dayton in 1934, then moved to Akron in 1935 for its central location and hilly terrain. It has run continuously since then, with the exception of a four-year hiatus during World War II. At the peak of its popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, the Soap Box Derby was considered one of the top five sporting events in terms of attendance. Girls entered the field for the first time in 1970
And as time and technology has advanced, the race itself has also been in transition. Today, more than 100 districts around the world compete to send racers to the main event in Akron. Each racer builds their own gravity-powered car from official kits from the AASBD, then compete to earn berths into the nationals in July.
Allison competes in the Masters division, which is racers between the ages of 10 to 20. The car is designed for a racer up to six feet tall and 155 pounds and is composed of a fiberglass shell, a floorboard and a braking and steering assembly. The car kit for that class runs $830, another $20 for a model with a handbrake.
The top three finishers in the Local and Rally Divisions receive scholarships from the Bill Speeg Memorial Scholarship Fund, named in honor of the late Regional Director for the program who spent countless hours with his own daughter in the sport, as well as support and assistance to many other young racers and their families.
Competing in Soap Box Derby racing has been a bit of a family tradition for Allison.
"My sister got it started for us back in 2007," Allison said. "First National called and said they needed a driver for their car. That got our family into it and I started in 2009."
Now to be an incoming student and get the opportunity to represent the community and the campus in the event is an exciting one for Allison and her family.
"It's really cool because I thought I was done with Soap Box Derby," Allison said. "I quit a year, then Tech called and said, 'Hey, we have this car and we need a driver.' I thought about it and said, yeah, I'm going to Tech, I can drive it. It'll be cool. So that got me back into it."
For the Soap Box Derby novices out there, driving one of the gravity-propelled vehicles can be a bit of a nerve-wracking affair.
"It's pretty scary," Allison remarked. "You really can't see anything. Last year, I really couldn't see anything as the car didn't have a helmet rail, so as you came off the ramp, the helmet came into your face. I crashed twice because I couldn't see. We got that fixed this year.
"But you can't see much even if it is fixed. You have about an inch of visibility where you can see the top of your tire and that's about it."
Then as the cars hit nearly 35 miles an hour as they swoop descends down the course's gradient path, the work then becomes how to keep the car going on a straight path – not that it's the easiest thing to control.
"So it has a little steering wheel, it's almost like a triangle, and it just turns from side to side. Last year, the steering in it was backwards, so that didn't really help anything either," Allison said, with a laugh.
She definitely has the knowledge of the sport and has learned what her car can do. So how do you prepare for the competition? Allison has her own approach, but one that has come from her own years of experience in the event.
"I don't prepare," she joked. "I'm really nervous. I'm a nervous wreck. I'm just going down the hill the whole time. Sometimes I just want to close my eyes. I just hold the car still and let it take me where it wants to go. Hopefully, not into the tires. I just hold it straight and hit the brake as soon as I get across the finish line.
"It's scary because you are going pretty fast. You can go between 28 to 32 miles an hour in this car, so it's definitely nerve-wracking."
That doesn't mean Allison and her family hasn't been doing some reconnaissance for this upcoming mission though.
"My dad has been watching a lot of videos from previous years," Allison said. "He's trying to figure out what kind of lines the previous racers have used. He's looked up different weight setups, so we've been out in the garage until about 10 or 11 every night working on it. We had to send the car off yesterday (for pre-race inspection), so we had to be completely finished with it.
"The last couple of days have been some pretty late nights in the garage."
Still, all the hard work and effort pays off when she reflects on the fact that, in just a matter of weeks, she's competing for a national championship.
"That's pretty cool," Allison said. "I think the best anyone from Cookeville has done is fourth. I hope I have a great showing. I know that there's just going to be a lot of people there. Here in Cookeville, there's usually only like six cars competing in the race. There it's going to be like 30 or 40 cars in a heat, so that's going to be completely different for us.
"I'm used to racing three times in a day and being done. In Akron, it won't be like that. It'll be racing all day."
The 82nd FirstEnergy All-American Soap Box Derby races will be streamed online at aasbd.soapboxderby.org.