CINCINNATI - The All-American Soap Box Derby is preparing for its 75th anniversary next month with growing confidence in the future of the Ohio-based organization after years of financial problems.
The president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit organization in northeast Ohio says a new focus on education and new sponsors and events are helping revitalize the derby. Rule changes enabling more young people to participate also should contribute to growth, President and CEO Joe Mazur said in a telephone interview from Akron.
The Akron-based nonprofit organization lost corporate sponsorship and was sued in 2009 by a bank seeking payment on $580,000 in loans, but the city agreed to guarantee the loans. The derby has worked to pay the loans and find ways to increase funding.
The financial problems inspired actor and director Corbin Bernsen to make "25 Hill," a film about a derby racer that premiered in Akron last year and generated $150,000 for the organization. Additional money also has come from foundations and grants, sales of derby car kits and licensing agreements with cities hosting derby qualifying races.
Dan Colantone, president of the Greater Akron Chamber, is confident the derby is now moving in the right direction.
"I think leadership realized it had to be more entrepreneurial and innovative in its thinking," Colantone said.
Mazur, who joined the organization a little over a year ago, said there is great potential for derby growth, especially with the educational focus.
"It's really just a matter of how fast that potential can be developed," he said.
Since the first derby in 1934, the goals have been to teach young people workmanship skills, the spirit of competition and perseverance, and Mazur says that won't change.
But the organization has made changes, including adding an educational program where schools use derby-car construction by students to teach them science, math and engineering skills. That program that began with two cars in an Akron school in 2010 has increased to 250 cars in schools in 11 states.
"Our sales of derby kits are up 40 percent because of that program," said Mazur.
Another boost came from adding FirstEnergy Corp. as the derby's first national title sponsor in seven years.
"The derby has provided a lot of youths with the opportunity to learn important design and engineering lessons, while at the same time discovering the value of teamwork, and we wanted to make sure that this event continues," said FirstEnergy spokeswoman Patti Michel.
A newly designed welcoming parade and other festivities kick off this year's derby week beginning July 16, with champions from all past derbies invited to participate. A display of older cars is being revived, and the public will be able to view this year's cars in a mass display featuring games and entertainment. Rule changes included lowering the age of competitors in one division from 8 to 7 and increasing the weight limit for entrants in another division.
The derby started in Dayton and moved to Akron the next year, with the downhill race of the gravity-powered cars held annually except during World War II.
About 500 competitors from United States and countries including Canada, Germany, Japan and New Zealand are expected to compete this year.