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Small Cars With Small Drivers Race Toward a World Championship

Valentina Ross arrived at the parking lot of Public School 111 in the Baychester neighborhood of the Bronx last Saturday seeking redemption. Spread all over the pavement were her opponents: 30 other soapbox derby teams, competitive elementary and middle schoolers and their teachers wearing matching shirts and attending to their gravity-powered vehicles. In last year’s race, she lost in the final heat, missing out on a chance to represent P.S. 83 at the Soap Box Derby World Championship in Akron, Ohio. She was determined not to let that happen again.

“You have this guilt built inside of you,” said Valentina, a 13-year-old from the Morris Park neighborhood. But she had prepared herself, doing yoga that morning and running hill sprints until she gathered with her team.

The race last Saturday was the culmination of months of effort from schools in the northeast Bronx, where students designed and assembled soapbox cars to compete for a place in the international championship this summer.

The derby racing was also a manifestation of the science curriculum in District 11 — one of a handful of New York City districts that have turned to soapbox to engage pupils and ultimately get them excited about going to, and being in, school.

Constructing the cars allowed students and their teachers to take a break from books, applying the concepts of physics and aerodynamics to test runs in the hallways and cafeteria.

The race on Saturday would send one winning team to what is officially known as the FirstEnergy All-American Soap Box Derby World Championship, which attracts nearly 400 contestants from around the world.

The rules are deceptively simple: Teams haul their cars (inspected by organizers to exacting specifications) to the starting line at the top of a modest hill off Baychester Avenue. Drivers slip into their cockpits, the starting gate opens and gravity does the rest. Over the 50-yard track, cars can reach speeds of 18 miles per hour.

The competition is designed like a bracket for a college basketball tournament: If a driver wins, she advances; if she loses, she goes home. Each heat has two races. After the first race, competitors swap wheels and start from the opposing lane of the track — an effort to eliminate material advantages. The driver with the fastest combined time moves forward.

Formalized soapbox derby racing emerged in 1930s, after the newspaper photographer Myron Scott witnessed a group of boys riding junkyard cars on the streets of Dayton, Ohio. In 1934, Mr. Scott pitched Chevrolet on a race for local youth; the company sponsored the All-American Soap Box Derby into the 1970s, and the competition has been held nearly every summer since.

Champions have come from all over the country: Clearwater, Fla., upstate New York, Bowling Green, Ky. New York City, however, has never produced an All-American Soap Box Derby champion.

It is not a cheap sport. Each soapbox car costs $1,800 — an official kit that includes lesson plans, basic parts and related race fees. (Teams are encouraged to customize the outer shell.) The schools in the Bronx also contribute to help pay for the winners’ trips to the championship race.

In 2022, Claudine Conover, the newly appointed STEM coordinator for District 11, introduced soapbox racing as part of the curriculum in the Bronx. That year, only 12 teams participated. Last year the number of cars ballooned to 46, and interest continues to grow, with more than 50 racers from 31 schools competing this year. Districts 7, 8, 9 and 10 in the Bronx have also asked Mrs. Conover to manage a derby for their schools.

School-sponsored races also occur in Staten Island and Brooklyn — and many participants credit Patricia Lockhart, a retired science teacher from Staten Island, with integrating soapbox into the city’s curriculum in 2015.

“Once you start, it goes crazy,” said Ms. Lockhart, who is now the New York City director for the All-American Soap Box Derby.

Building derby cars is woven into the philosophy of Leaders of Tomorrow, a Bronx middle school that has struggled in the past with violence and chronic absenteeism. It’s not only an engaging way to teach aerodynamics and physics. According to Joseph Biernat, the school’s principal, students on the soapbox team are “are more likely to come to school because there’s something else positive going on.”

The man in charge of Leaders of Tomorrow’s soapbox team is Ronald Washington Jr., a science teacher. Many of his students have dreams of playing basketball in college and beyond, he said, and he was impressed at their devotion to after-school soapbox sessions, when they might otherwise be at the gym.

Mr. Washington, a ballplayer himself who tore his A.C.L. playing at Bronx Community College, stresses to his students the importance of singing more than one song. His message is not to discard the game they love, but to continue to explore new opportunities.

“It’s more than just basketball,” he said to them, and they were all in. But after a couple of initial victories, Leaders of Tomorrow lost in the third round.

“It was very competitive,” said Jeremih Gayle, 12, one of the team’s drivers. “And I just enjoyed the day.”

One unfortunate aspect of soapbox racing: It is a team effort to build and test the car, but only one person gets to drive it. On race day, the rest of the team serves as the pit crew. They adjust the steering and replace the wheels, they push and pull the car up the hill to the starting line, and they greet the racer at the finish line.

Each car must weigh exactly 240 pounds at the start. Once a driver is in the cockpit — a student might weigh around 100 pounds — teams place weights in the car to meet the threshold. Even without a driver, it can still be a heavy load.

Manav Lall, 11, a member of the P.S. 87 pit crew, was prepared. “I do 20 push-ups a day,” he said.

His teammate Halvel Williams said he was prepared, too. “I have muscles,” he said. The 10-year-old flexed his biceps.

On Saturday, Manav and Halvel stood by the finish line holding small checkered flags. They wore coordinated red racing suits. Even their teacher, Dwayne Austin, wore the uniform.

After the first race, they chased after their driver, Jayden Cassanova, as he sped past the time sensor. Together with their teacher they nudged the car, decorated in honor of Lightning McQueen, the protagonist in the movie “Cars,” back to the starting line.

Though committed, the team was bounced after the first round.

Valentina, on the other hand, the driver for P.S. 83, dominated her competition early. She eased into the third round, where she faced P.S. 68 — the very school that beat her in the finals last year.

After the first race in a heat, Valentina would jump out of her car at the finish line and run uphill for the second race as if she were angry. But she was simply focused.

So, too, was Jayden Trapp, P.S. 68’s first-time driver, a fifth grader who wants to be an engineer like his father. Jayden, whose favorite subject is math, never missed a practice, according to his teacher, Craig Fogarty. And his mother, Elva, said Jayden could barely sleep the night before the race.

“I had to put him to bed early,” she said, describing her son as the type of kid who will break something “just to fix it.”

Both drivers slipped into their cars with practiced form. In her blue derby car with its yellow lightning-bolt stickers, Valentina looked one with her vehicle. Jayden, in his shiny burgundy car, looked like a pilot prepared to pierce through the wind.

The gate opened, the crews cheered and the two barreled downhill. It was close, but Jayden outpaced Valentina, who said she was disappointed but not angry. Jayden’s burgundy soapbox car went on to victory, and this July, he will get a chance to race for the championship in Akron.

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