Denise Frampton said her family only got into Soap Box Derby racing because she was looking for activities for her son, Chad, who has autism.
She said Chad raced in the Super Kids division, with two-person cars driven by racers in the non-special needs division. Then her daughter, Amelia, who turns 9 Tuesday, joined that regular division.
Denise’s great-niece, Destiney, now 9, said she decided to join after watching Amelia and Chad.
On Saturday, all those Framptons were at the races at South Charleston’s Little Creek Park, along with Denise Frampton’s in-laws, husband and niece. During the Saturday morning instructions about the race, Frampton invited the roughly 100 people gathered to cake for Chad and Amelia’s birthday parties, there at the park after racing.
But this wasn’t just a get-together. This was a competition.
“Prior to this, I always thought that Soap Box Derby was something you saw in the ‘Little Rascals’ movies,” Frampton said. “I have learned that it is very streamlined.”
Streamlined it is. The cars that raced in the event, held by the Kanawha Valley Soap Box Derby Association, are built from kits and come in three varieties: Stock, Super Stock and Masters.
There are no motors — or firecracker-powered boosters, bladed wheels or any of the other things in the 1994 “Little Rascals” movie that might lead to lawsuits.
Instead, the cars start at the top of a dedicated Soap Box Derby track, which the association said was built in 1969. The straight, paved track slopes downward, and while there are total weight limits, the weight distribution inside the cab affects the speed.
Donovan Edds, who was there with his girlfriend and her son, Noah Taylor, 7, said cars generally need weight in the back to win. But he pointed to an undulating portion of the track that cars need nose weight to counter.
Adding weights by securing them to the bottom of the cab is allowed.
But the main weight in the cab is generally the racer. One parent mentioned trying to adjust this particular factor with hamburgers.
Saturday’s racing began with one-on-one races. Basically, the two competitors would race down the hill once, then trade not only lanes with their opponent, but wheels, too.
That way, the skill of the driver and weight distribution of their car would hopefully decide who won, seeing as each driver/car combo got to race in each lane using the same wheels their rival used in that lane.
Two such trips down the track determined the winner of that set, and the winner advanced to face the next challenger. Losers went to another bracket, and were eliminated if they lost again.
Stephen Locher, who had two kids in Saturday’s races, argued the driver’s skill at keeping the car as straight as possible determined 80 percent to 90 percent of who won.
Complicating things Saturday was a relatively new mandate that required even more wheel trading throughout the day. Edds fretted that, if a crash occurred, adults might have to pay to replace not just a car, but someone else’s wheels that were on their own child’s car at the time.
Cyndi Terry, the rally director, said anyone age 7-20 can race, and the roughly 50 racers competing this weekend represent eight states.
Some of the Frampton force had a uniform.
The back of Denise Frampton’s shirt said, in glitter: “Amelia’s Pit Crew.”
The front: “My daughter doesn’t chase boys, she passes them.”
Denise Frampton had pink sunglasses to go with her pink shirt. Amelia had pink sunglasses to go with her pink shirt.
Amelia’s Soap Box Derby car?
White, but transported off the track by a pink dolly.
Also, Amelia’s name was on it, surrounded by hearts, all in pink, and there were purple butterflies on it, too, matching the pink and purple (Denise Frampton said those are Amelia’s favorite colors) of the blocks used to raise the car — though they also had a half-pink metal lift.
Swanna Frampton, Denise Frampton’s mother-in-law, didn’t don a pink shirt, but hers did say, “Talk Derby to Me.”
Despite the outfits and color scheme, Amelia lacked some enthusiasm Saturday. She let out a guttural hiss as she worked on her raised-up car.
“This pin is being stupid,” she said.
There was a ferry of pickup trucks, which towed kids, in the cab or truck bed, and their cars, attached to trailers, from the bottom of the race track back to the top.
“Bye Mommy, I love you,” Destiney said with a wave to her mother, Savanna, as she got into a truck for one of these many routine trips back up the hill.
Amelia, sitting under a tarp, asked how much longer the races would take. Her birthday party was at the end of the day, and the heat was in the upper 80s.
She said she liked the air blowing in her face as she raced, and she liked getting in the ferry trucks. Those trucks had something her Soap Box car didn’t: air-conditioning.
“I love full, cool air,” she said. “I kind of love fans.”
Edds said his sister, Amy Bowe, had her late 1970s, early 1980s Soap Box racing success cut short by childhood rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis. Edds said Bowe helped get Noah into the sport now.
“You should have seen her face in Akron,” Edds said of his sister, who accompanied him and Noah to the championship in Akron, Ohio.
“There’s a lot of longtime people here,” Edds said. “A lot of them.”
While they’re still using the South Charleston track, he said it’s in bad shape, and called for improvements.
“They could at least give these guys AC,” he said.
Racing continues Sunday, starting at 9:30 a.m. For more information, visit the Kanawha Valley Soap Box Derby Association’s Facebook page.