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King City girls feel the pull of soap box derby

Soap box derby cars don't have engines, but they do have 70 years of racing tradition under their belt


by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Aleiah Barnes, 8, and her sister, Ileiza, 11, race down their King City neighborhood in soap box derby cars. The sport, which began during the Great Depression, is still going strong with its national championships next week in Akron, Ohio.Ileiza Barnes and her sister Aleiah are still years away from taking their driving test at the Department of Motor Vehicles, but chances are they’re already better drivers than most people.

Ileiza, 11, and Aleiah, 8, are champion soap box derby racers from King City who are proving there’s a place for their sport in the modern world.

Soap box derby racing has long been the image of a simpler time. Kids aged 7 to 18 have been making and racing soap box derby cars since the 1930s.

The sport was once very popular, said the girls’ father, Trevor Barnes. Its national championships in Akron, Ohio, were once one of the most popular sporting events in the country, with more than 50,000 spectators making their way to Ohio each summer. But the sport has seen drastically reduced attendance since the 1980s, with more and more children turning to other sports or activities.

Interested in learning more about soapbox derby?

The next season of the All-American Soap Box Derby begins in August.

To learn more about the Salem Soap Box Derby, email the Barnes family at sunnycat20032@gmail.com.

Ileiza began racing three years ago. Her sister took up the sport a year later.

“I saw my cousin do it, and I tried it, and I liked it. And now, I do it,” the matter-of-fact 11-year-old said. “It’s a great sport because I wanted to hang out and get new friends.”

The Barnes sisters race with Salem Soap Box Derby, the oldest dedicated Soap Box Derby organization west of the Mississippi River

The club, which has about 24 racers spread over two divisions, races a few times a month at its track in Salem, as well as traveling to races in Redmond, Lincoln City and Poulsbo, Wash., throughout the year.

Trevor Barnes grew up in Salem and remembers getting fliers from the Salem Soap Box Derby as a boy.

“I wanted my kids to have an experience,” he said. “Honestly, I didn’t think they’d be kicking it around this long. I figured they would have moved on to basketball or soccer by now.”

But Ileiza said she has no plans of slowing down.

“I want to keep doing this until I’m not allowed to anymore,” she said. “I don’t like soccer or basketball. I don’t want to get hurt. I don’t want to scrape my knees.”

‘All about the kids’

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Aleiah Barnes, 8, and her sister, Ileiza, 11, are soap box derby racers from King City with a passion for their sport. The girls race a few times a month all over the state.When the girls strap on their helmets and protective goggles and climb into their derby cars, their eyes poke less than an inch above the cockpit, making them as aerodynamic as possible.

There’s no engine under the hood of Ileiza’s speedster, Fireball. There’s no electric motor, either — just four wheels, a steering column and a brake pedal.

The cars are placed on starting blocks for added elevation, then set off down the hill. Racing two at a time, the vehicles reach speeds of 35 miles per hour down the 300-yard-long racetrack, powered by nothing but gravity.

“I like to go fast,” Aleiah said from her car, nicknamed “Geoffrey the Giraffe.”

The girls’ mother, Evett Barnes, said she was worried about her daughters getting involved in the potentially dangerous sport at first, but she couldn’t deny the girls’ enjoyment of the activity.

The Barnes sisters built their cars with the help of their coach and mentor, Wes Foster, who has devoted years to helping children enter the sport.

The former director of Region 1 for the All-American Soap Box Derby, Foster was responsible for organizing races in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska before retiring last year after 29 years in the sport.

Foster raced as a child back in the 1960s and got involved in the 1980s after his son started racing.

“It’s such a fun sport,” he said. “I love the competition and working with the kids.”

In the years since their daughters began racing, Evett and Trevor Barnes have worked to raise the sport’s profile regionally, and to find more racers to keep the sport going.

“It’s all about the kids,” Trevor Barnes said. “We want to carry on the legacy and help kids who can’t afford to do it on their own.”

Kits for derby cars run about $600, so Ileiza and Aleiah raised $400 to help lower income families buy derby car kits.

“That’s really important,” Trevor said. “There are families who can afford it, but there are plenty of kids on the lower end who have a hard time.”

The hope, Trevor said, is to grow the next generation of racers. “Racing is just a part of America. This is a great way to get the kids involved to do it.”

Foster said the sport’s popularity is beginning gain momentum again.

“If you had asked me 10 years ago if (soap box derby) would last another 70 years, I would have said, ‘No.’ It was almost gone a couple of times,” he said. “But now it’s growing and, eventually, I think it will catch on even more.”

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