This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
DeKalb CEO has been pushing to build track. AKRON, Ohio --- This is the soapbox derby racing that Burrell Ellis recalls as a kid, the reason the DeKalb County CEO wants to spend $1 million to bring a permanent track to his district. At the 75th All-American Soap Box Derby, 425 kids were racing their hand-built carts for national titles here at the sport's birthplace, a week filled with Rockwellian diversion, the sport that Ellis wants to transport to DeKalb for economic, youth-oriented and, perhaps, nostalgic reasons. But a study by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at last month's championships found that running soapbox racing's marquee event is a money-loser, nearly going bankrupt three years ago. Since its popularity spiked in the 1960s, soapbox racing has become a niche activity, and while local residents may love the tradition, they ignore the sport. "I see enough of it in the newspaper," said Bill Bash, a medical courier who has lived on the hill behind Derby Downs for 11 years. Like many of his neighbors interviewed during the world championships, Bash had never attended a race or any other activity at the track. DeKalb commissioners said they were unaware of Akron's struggles when, as a commissioner, Ellis successfully added a permanent track to the list of possible recreation facilities to be built with bond money. The project has over-heated in recent months. The county had already spent $585,000 in a complicated land deal to buy the 10-acre lot on Rock Chapel Road and another $130,000 to design the track when officials earlier this year began to question the finances and, more importantly, the usage. Work has stopped until the commission gathers more information on the venture. "What they like in Akron is the history in their community," Commissioner Elaine Boyer said. "Here, there is no public clamor for this and no market analysis that shows we could sell it to our investors, the taxpayers. I don't hear anybody wanting this." The All-American Soap Box Derby has been sliding in popularity since the early 1970s, when Chevrolet dropped its national sponsorship and, with it, an easy avenue for marketing the sport, said spokesman Bob Troyer. Even as the national organization tried to keep pace with the times --- replacing oncehomemade engineless cars with ready-to-assemble kits, for instance --- the derby has become a specialty sport that relies on past racers, not big business, to promote events. That flagging public appeal shows in federal tax returns. The national derby, which licenses local races such as those in Dunwoody and Marietta, lost money in three of the last five years.
The financial crash came in 2009, when an Ohio bank sued the derby to repay $580,000 in loans or face foreclosure of the three-lane track, its grandstands and even the garages that double as storage and a museum of soapbox derby cars. The city of Akron, which already gives the derby a $65,000 annual stipend as part of $1 million designated for local civic groups, stepped in to guarantee the loans with taxpayer dollars. The restructuring deal also called for a new board of directors to be named and for greater business involvement in the group, said deputy Mayor Dave Lieberth. Ellis, who was a soapboxer racer while growing up in Washington, D.C., has been reluctant to talk about the track during election season, especially after an AJC investigation revealed in June that he had authorized nearly $100,000 to clear-cut the track site without commission approval. Ellis stopped the work after the commission took the unusual step of adopting a resolution to halt the project. Last week, he would say only that he remained committed to "quality recreational opportunities" in DeKalb and hoped to build consensus with the board on what that meant. But earlier this year, he touted the project, saying, "This will be an opportunity for economic development, to bring people to our hotels and restaurants. But it is primarily for the kids, to give them an opportunity for an activity that lets them learn and have fun." The two-lane track would be constructed through the granite outcroppings on a site north of Lithonia. Matt Williams, a Candler Park marketing consultant, drives his 14-year-old, Katy, all over the Southeast to race in soapbox events. He said he could help draft a marketing plan calling for two local races a month on a permanent track in DeKalb and also allowing community members to try racing on borrowed cars. That's how Brookhaven's 7-year-old Malena Shipley became a convert. She first drove a soapbox derby car when she and her father, John, stumbled upon a demonstration of the gravity-powered racers at Dunwoody Lemonade Days last spring. Racing in a borrowed car at the derby as one of 10 Georgia contestants last month, she won her division. "I want her to feel confident that she can plan something out and do it," John Shipley said afterward. "This couldn't be better for her." Nancy Mooney, director of the Dunwoody race who first lent Melena a car to encourage her interest, said she has several models on hand for sampling. Parents don't need to be engineers to build a car and children don't need to be athletes to drive them. "One good thing about the derby, all children --- disadvantaged children, disabled children --- can participate. It's so pure," said Mooney, watching trial runs in Akron in her "Talk derby to me" T-shirt. "It's for the whole community."
Community support has helped the national organization rebound. Since the city backed its debt, the group is current on its loan payments. The Greater Akron Chamber also spearheaded a $300,000 campaign to keep the derby afloat and recruited business leaders to help the derby bounce back. The struggles also drew the attention of actor Corbin Bernsen, who made a film about a kid racing in a local derby that has since generated $150,000 for the organization. Bernsen, best remembered for his role in "L.A. Law," flew to Akron to take snapshots of the race like any fan but said he also is pitching a reality TV show that features local derby racers as they try to get to the championships. DeKalb would be on the list for filming only if there is a permanent track, he said, but the county would also see another benefit. "Where derby organizations are thriving, you see Main Streets that aren't all boarded up," said Bernsen, who never raced. "It's because in a place where you rally around the derby, you have a sense of community." Still, it can be an uphill battle to gain traction. In the last two decades, Akron has added four baseball fields, a 19,000-square-foot skatepark and BMX biking course adjacent to Derby Downs, all to draw additional attention and activity to the area. The skatepark's concrete ramps, bowls and stairs are especially big draws for the skaters and cyclists whose thrill-seeking might have led them to the derby cars that can reach speeds of 35 mph on the nearby slope. "I would have done it, but my dad wasn't the kind of guy who was going to spend that kind of time," said Shaun Bauch, a 24-year-old home remodeler from a nearby suburb. "That's why I skate. You can do it on your own." Skateboarding can also be done with just a $25 piece of equipment and another $20 of safety gear. A derby car kit costs about $500, making many DeKalb residents view it as an elitist activity, said Commissioner Lee May, whose district includes the proposed track. May led commissioners in asking for a report investigating if a skatepark or other activities could be built around a track, possibly on county-owned land at the adjacent Bransby Outdoor YMCA, to increase usage there. County park officials have yet to submit that report, something May said could lead to a track being built after all. "This could be a chance to really engage our youth," May said. "We'd be interested in this if there was more going on at that site." Soapbox racing First organized in 1933, soapbox racing is an international youth program pitting engineless cars powered only by gravity. Though the carts were originally custom-built using old soap or orange crates, racers are now constructed from standardized metal and wood kits,
averaging 150 pounds and costing over $500. Races are run down hillside streets and racers may reach 35 mph. The ultimate event in the sport, dubbed the "greatest amateur racing event in the world," is the All-American Soap Box Derby, first run in 1934 and held every summer in Akron, Ohio. Qualifiers from around the nation and Canada from ages 7 to 17 compete in three divisions, rushing down a 954-foot track at Derby Downs. Winners qualify for college scholarship money. ORGANIZATION'S STRUGGLES The All-American Soap Box Derby has been struggling for money for years, though the organization appears to have stopped its financial slide. Here are the nonprofit's bottom lines of the last six years. Filing date Profit/loss Sept. 30, 2005 $79,100 Sept. 30 2006 -$827,477* Sept. 30, 2007 $300,440 Sept. 30, 2008 -$436,310 Sept. 30, 2009 -$140,199 Sept. 30, 2010 $152,133 *Includes write-down of inventory Source: All-American Soap Box Derby federal tax returns OUR FINDINGS The Soap Box Derby, the sport's marquee event in Akron, Ohio, nearly went bankrupt three years ago. While the race draws contestants from all over the U.S. and Canada, the derby draws only mild interest in Akron, its home since 1934. While DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis has pushed for construction of a soapbox race track near Lithonia, county commissioners said they were unaware of the Akron track's financial struggles.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.