AKRON, Ohio – A participant in the first All-American Soap Box Derby watched Saturday as more than 440 racers competed in the 76th running of the event.
Jack Hamels, 90, raced in the first derby in 1934, when it took place in Dayton, Ohio. He said cars then were made out of whatever a racer could find.
"The cars we made, we had to make them ourselves," Hamels, of Buffalo, N.Y., said. "These are more sophisticated."
Hamels said he decided to race when he saw an advertisement for the event in a local newspaper. He's kept his memorabilia throughout the years, including rulebooks, race programs, the cloth hats racers wore and the numbers from his car.
Hamels served as Grand Marshal of this year's derby parade, spent time with current and past racers and even raced down the track at one point.
Hamels, who did not win his 1934 race, had some advice for Saturday's contestants.
"If you lost, come again next year," he said.
This year's derby featured racers from countries around the world, including the United States, Canada, Japan and New Zealand.
Ricky Desens, 14, of Webster, N.Y., won the Rally Super Stock division, and Macaila Ziolkowski, 13, of McKeesport, Pa., won the Stock division. Bryce Volpe, 14, of Mentor, won the Super Stock division.
This year's youngest winner was Erin Donovan, 9, of Eagleville, Pa., who won the Rally Stock division.
"I'm probably gonna show my neighbors and everything my big, giant trophy," she said.
Two 16-year-olds won the Masters divisions. Jay Warnick of Drayden, Md., won Local Masters and Melanie Kohout of Geneva, Ill., won Rally Masters.
The local division winners won a $3,000 college scholarship, and the rally division winners received a $2,000 scholarship. Winners also received a gold ring, trophy and championship jacket. Stock division winners will be given a hand-carved replica of their championship car.
The derby is continuing to undergo changes as officials try to ensure its future and preserve the past.
Race president and CEO Joe Mazur has overseen a lot of those changes, including the start last year of a hall of fame and museum and an alumni association for all former race participants.
"For us, not to have an alumni association is actually crazy," he said.
Mazur also wants to see a bigger global presence and more racing opportunities.
Currently, around 6,000 racers in 600 races around the world compete in an effort to get to Akron, and Mazur wants to increase race locations. Fifteen new rally races were added this year, in addition to seven new race locations.
He says the past will still play a large role in the organization. Mazur plans to expand the derby's influence with the help of generations of racers.
"I've never run into anyone that doesn't want to do something for the derby," Mazur said. "Once it's in your blood, it's in your blood."