Never too old to compete: Akron's Soap Box Derby takes seniors for a spin

AKRON, Ohio - He only had to wait 75 years for his dream to come true. Dom Stillo finally got to race down the hill at Derby Downs.

Circumstances and financial constraints prevented Stillo, 80, of Akron, from racing in the All-American Soap Box Derby as a young boy. But, he cheered on his nephew as he competed and won several races over the years and goes to the derby every year to cheer on the racers.

Stillo was among more than 90 seniors who participated in the first Active-Adult Derby racing day, held Thursday morning at the track. The racers, who had to be at least 50 to qualify, signed waivers before climbing into the derby cars.

"I finally got my dream," Stillo said after taking his turn down the hill. "I didn't realize it would be so fast. It was a lot of fun. My gosh!"

Stillo hopes this will be the "beginning of a rebirth for the derby."

That's also the hope of derby and city of Akron officials, who have been looking for ways to promote the race and make it more accessible, especially in light of the recently released derby movie "25 Hill" movie and next year's 75th anniversary race.

Bill Ginter, the chairman of the derby board who raced against -- and beat -- Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic to start the event, said the seniors race might be opened up to a wider group next year. Video taken at Thursday's event might be used to market an expanded version of the race.

Ginter said several people, including himself, were saying Thursday that the idea for the event is "so obvious. Why didn't we do it before?"

Derby volunteers, several who also are older, gave the racers tips on going down the hill and using the brakes. Most of the racers were able to stop their cars in time, though one woman nearly made it to the hay bales at the end of the asphalt. Volunteers helped the racers enter and exit their cars.

The first racers to go down the hill were Betty and Mel Channel, Plusquellic's mother and stepfather. Betty, 84, beat Mel, 83, but he's hoping for a rematch next year.

Some of the seniors were nervous about the ride.

"If I see somebody crash, I don't know if I want to go," said Rose Moskos, 82, of Green, as she waited for her turn at the top of the hill.

"It looks a little long," said Mary Devol, 86, of New Franklin.
The two friends ended up racing against each other and enjoying it. (Devol won.)

Most of the racers are involved in senior clubs at Akron's community centers, where they exercise, play cards, do arts and crafts and collaborate on volunteer efforts.

Sally Nyburg, Akron's active adult coordinator, said she had no trouble getting volunteers for the derby event. She's hoping the opportunity will prompt some of the seniors to volunteer with the derby next year. Derby officials are soliciting volunteers to help with anniversary-year activities.

"We try to get them involved in everything in the community," Nyburg said. "It's just a really good group of people."

The seniors paid $5 each for the chance to race. The city used the money to cover the cost of lunch and planned to donate any proceeds to the derby.

The oldest racer, Esther Cline, is 90 and still drives a Corvette and goes on cruises all over the world. She's no stranger to speed or thrills and said she enjoyed going down the hill. She said the secret to staying active is "exercise, exercise, exercise." She rides her bike every day.

Shirley Black, who wore a T-shirt that read: "I Went Over the Hill at Derby Downs," had two complaints after her race: She wanted to start from the top, like racers used to; and she wanted to go again.

Black, 77, of Akron, remembers going to derby races in the '40s and thinking that girls should be allowed to take part. She said going down the hill was on her bucket list of things she wanted to do before she dies.

"It was delightful!" she said.

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