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Colorado Springs-area kids rev up their dreams as soap box derby nears

By: t.d. mobley-martinez tracy.mobleymartinez@gazette.com
June 6, 2014 Updated: June 6, 2014 at 9:21 pm
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Clayton Stephens pushes his soap box car onto the ramp to race in the Pikes Peak Soap Box Derby on Sunday, June 10, 2012. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)

As boys and girls have done since soap box derby racing began in 1934, Jody Shanklin dreamed of trophies, cheering crowds and victory after victory in his homemade car.

"I used to sled down the hill next to my house," said Shanklin, director of the Pikes Peak Soap Box Derby. "When I put four wheels under a sled, it was pretty ..."

... Awesome. ...Thrilling. ... Life changing. All that and more was telegraphed as his sentence trailed off.

The local soap box derby race on Sunday will catapult three winners to the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio. For soap box racers, the July 26 competition is the Big Time.

The Colorado Springs race, which is open to competitors from Castle Rock to Pueblo, was founded in 2004. Still, the Springs has had a long off-and-on history with the sport, including a heat down Barr Trail in the 1930s.

It was still something of an engineering free-for-all when Shanklin, now 56, competed in 1972: The cars were created from the maker's own plans and materials. Today, racers must buy a kit from the national soap box derby. Car kits (wheels sold separately) range from $430 to $455 for the entry-level stock division, to $610 to $662 for a masters' faster and more finely engineered car.

Kids either find their own sponsors or are supported by one of the derby sponsors, including the Sertoma Club, Kiwanis Club of Monument Hill and El Pomar Foundation.

Competitors range from ages 7 to 18, depending on the division.

Shanklin and his dad, a machinist, did it the hard way.

"You had to go to the lumber company and get wood. The maximum you could spend was $40. It was quite a challenge," said Shanklin, who was living in Ohio when he competed. "The lumber company donated a lot wood. You went to the clinics and got the hardware. You had to keep a list of the materials and the costs and turn it in. It was quite rigorous."

When the day came, he climbed into his white car, which bore a striking resemblance to an Indy car. It wasn't his day, though.

"I lost," he said, laughing.

It was depressing, he said, "but I had too much fun doing all the work and working with Dad to get too upset."

That mentorship is key to the derby, he said, adding that the closeness that emerges from the experience is often missing in today's overtaxed families.

Shanklin, an engineer at Lockheed Martin, has helped his own children compete. Oliver, now 19, won many races during his time behind the wheel, and now helps with the local races. Grace, 13, will be one of the 30 competitors at one of the starting lines on Sunday.

What does it take to become a champion? Shanklin pauses a moment.

"Most of it is the driver and how well you can drive a hill," he said. "Just going down the hill is not enough. You really need to understand how to drive the hill in order to get to the bottom first."

He learned early on that the bottom line isn't winning, though. The lucky ones walk away with something more.

"I remember after doing it, I kind of wanted to be an engineer. I wanted to study how things flow through the air and go down hill and stuff like that. And (I remember) building it and bonding with my dad."

Sometimes he takes his derby scrapbook out to remind his kids of the essentials -"to show them how badly I did."

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