WOODSTOCK – There’s something about the band playing its way down that hill.
Every year, moments before race day starts on Saturday morning at the All-American Soap Box Derby, Jeff Packard stands with his family and watches and hears and feels the band, a local high school group, while it marches in.
And for whatever reason, that’s the moment the nostalgia hits. That’s when 40-plus years of building and tinkering and racing flashes through the Ohio air.
“Boy, does that bring back some memories,” said Packard, a soap box derby veteran from Woodstock. “And some butterflies to my stomach.”
Packard’s kids will continue the family tradition this year in Akron, Ohio, at the national tournament for qualifying soap box derby racers from across the country – some, from around the world. Rachel Packard, 14, and Jason Packard, 11, will race in the Super Stock and Stock divisions.
Each are making return trips. Rachel will compete for the third time, this time having qualified through the Rally Race Program – a way drivers can accumulate points through competing in several tournaments.
Jason is back for the second time after winning the local Chicago race in his division.
“I like the racing,” said Jason, who will begin sixth grade at Northwood Middle School in the fall. “Because it’s fast.”
Soap box cars rely on gravity and the angle of the downhill course to move. The All-American race splits racers into three divisions based on their level of experience.
Jason Packard will compete this year in the Stock division, for 7 to 13 year olds. Rachel will compete in the Super Stock, which accepts children ages 9 to 18. The most advanced racer tries his or her luck in the Masters division for 10 through 18 year olds.
But by the time Jason and Rachel line up Saturday, they will have already invested countless hours into their cars.
Every second of excitement on the 989.4-foot track is earned by hours in the basement, adjusting spindles and making sure the wheel steers true.
That was Rachel’s introduction to the program. As a toddler, she’d watch, fascinated, while her dad and stepbrother, Jacob Vester, worked on Jacob’s car.
At age 3, Rachel pulled on her brother’s helmet and climbed in. That was it.
“I fell in love with it ever since,” said the 14 year old, who will start at Woodstock North High School in the fall.
Her father was similarly entranced back before the soap box derby became more or less synonymous with Packard. His brother started competing at age 11. Jeff was five at the time. Soon, he would be building his own car with his father, speeding in it down concrete slopes, the soap box derby suddenly becoming a very real part of him.
“It’s almost like a virus,” Jeff Packard said.
Jeff competed in three All-American races as a kid. He went back with Vester in the early 2000s.
Now he’s set to once again watch Jason – who will compete against cars from Pennsylvania and California in his first heat – and Rachel – who, in a rare two-lane heat, will compete against a car from New York. Win, and they continue to the next round. Otherwise, it’s root for your sibling and try to enjoy the weekend.
“I’m really nervous, and really excited,” Rachel said. “I’ve been there before, and I want to make it even further than the last one.”