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Young racers put STEM skills to test during Soap Box Derby

David Floyd • May 22, 2017 at 9:23 AM

Twelve-year-old Jordyn Townsend set her gaze on the slight incline in front of her. The downhill track stretched hundreds of feet into the distance. Nearby, her small soap box car sat ready for the descent.

Powered by the forces of gravity, she was about to steer her miniature automobile down the shallow hill. 

“It’s thrilling, scary and a little bit exciting,” she said after the race.

Jordyn climbed into the car and crouched in her seat, trying to reduce the amount of wind resistance against her body. Her competitor, racing against her in a similar car, did the same.

“When you first get on it, you’re going really slow and once you get halfway down you get more momentum,” she said. “Just keep your head down and keep your eyes above the surface.”

Jordyn was one of more than half a dozen young racers who competed in the Johnson City Kiwanis Club Soap Box Derby from 10 a.m to noon Saturday on the campus of Borla Performance Industries. The competition, made possible by the Kiwanis Club and an assortment of sponsors, has been about a year and a half in the making.

“It’s an idea to bring STEM, which is a popular concept lately, to bring it to reality so that kids acquire a car kit,” said Kent Merrill, chairman of the Johnson City Kiwanis Soap Box Derby Committee, “and they take part in assembling the kit and building it and understand the physics of it and what the physics are that make the car run better or be more competitive.” 

Although the race on Saturday wasn’t officially sanctioned through the All-American Soap Box Derby, organizers hope to meet the 12-car minimum needed for the official designation next year. Earning that designation would make the winner of the race eligible to compete in the national championship in Akron, Ohio.

Cars cannot weigh more than a set maximum weight, and racers are divided into two divisions: the stock division and the super stock division. Stock division cars cannot be more than 200 pounds while super stock cars cannot be more than 240 pounds. Racers in the stock car division must be between the ages of 7 and 13, and racers in the super stock division must be between ages 9 and 18.

During the competition on Saturday, drivers raced two at a time down a two-lane track.

“Since one lane may be physically better than the other lane, they come back up to the top and they switch lanes,” Merrill said. “Because the rules and all of the inspection is to make the cars as identical as possible, they go back up to the top and actually switch wheels.”

Because kits needed to construct cars can cost about $1,000, many of the racers on Saturday benefited from the sponsorship of local businesses. Jordyn was sponsored by Citizens Bank, which is where her dad works. 

Scott Greer, the bank’s CFO and COO and a long time member of the Johnson City Kiwanis Club, said the club hopes to make this a sanctioned event in the future.

“Hopefully over the next couple of years we’ll build this up into a successful event,” Greer said. “This is more of a learning process and getting out and having fun with the kids.”

Press Staff Writer Sue Guinn Legg contributed to this story.

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