Working on our Best of the City, it got me thinking about what I think is the best of the city.
Last weekend I spent the day at Derby Downs, next to Akron Fulton Airport. The occasion was to watch my granddaughter, Xaverie, race down the hill in a car built by her and some of her classmates at Miller South.
The race is not the All-American Soap Box Derby, but a competition among area middle schools that build official derby cars in class as part of a science project. This is the third year for the event dreamed up by Derby President Joe Mazur and is called The Gravity Racing Challenge. The first year the event drew but two cars; the second year, nine cars; but this year the event brought in over 65 entrants from all over the area and one team from North Carolina.
Xaverie’s car was one that Miller South already owned so the barrier to entry was made easier by not having to buy a car kit and spares. However, the kids did have to take the car completely apart (every last nut and bolt) and rebuild it to current specifications under the tutelage of Mr. Marxen, the science teacher. Xaverie was chosen to drive because of her genealogy of race car drivers, including her little brother Liam who, the previous weekend, won his first go-kart race of the season, and also because she’s the smallest person in her class.
Eric Mansfield, Kent State's new executive director of media relations, was the race announcer because he’s very generous with his time and because his son also drove a Miller South-built car. The racing was exciting, not only because I had a granddaughter in the race, but because I realized what a great treasure Derby Downs and the All-American Soap Box Derby is to the Akron area.
I’ve worried that the Derby had seen its day and that it was time to stop putting money into this anachronistic holdover from Akron’s heyday as the Rubber Capital of the World — when Hollywood celebrities came to the city and the event made national news. My thoughts were leaning in that direction until I realized how this facility could be used for other things besides the Derby, which happens only once a year.
Even the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has had to add other races to the track’s schedule to make running the Indy 500 on Memorial Day weekend a financially viable event. The folks at Indy have added a very successful NASCAR event and, at one time, a Formula One race which has since moved to Austin, Texas. If the folks at the Derby Downs can schedule other events like the school competition and perhaps some corporate outings (What adult wouldn’t want to go down Derby Downs just once in their life?), I think it can become a viable venue and one of Akron’s many claims to fame again.
Xaverie finished fifth out of 65 cars so she’s really pumped and wants to run the local Soap Box Derby this month. I’ve been asked to be her pit crew and handler, and I’m looking forward to it. So, yes, Derby Downs is near the top of my Best Of favorites, and I’ll let you know how the race turns out.