A year ago, Sheila Rutherford sat in front of her computer, dreading what she was about to do.
Rutherford, the race director for the Piedmont Area Soap Box Derby, had just typed up an email announcing the cancellation of the 2020 race due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She knew she had to send it to all the participants, but she agonized over the widespread disappointment that one click would bring.
“So many kids and their families look forward to this race,” Rutherford said. “It only happens once a year, and there’s so much effort and family bonding that goes into trying to perfect their cars. Sadly, the pandemic took that away.”
Fortunately for derby enthusiasts, the steady decline in COVID-19 cases in the U.S. over the past few months paved the way for the event’s return.
Smiles were plentiful Saturday morning, as 28 racers and many more spectators converged on Paul Bates Raceway in Culpeper for the 2021 Piedmont Area Soap Box Derby.
“I can’t describe how great it is to be back out here with everyone,” said 13-year-old Johnathan Johnson, a Culpeper resident who started racing in 2018. “Having been in quarantine so long, I’d almost forgotten how much I really love this.”
Johnson’s sentiments rang true—not only for his fellow racers, but for everyone from Rutherford to the fans that camped out next to the track well before the 10:30 a.m. opening ceremonies. Above all else, they spoke about the experience of being back together at the track.
“It really was disheartening not to have the kids here working on their cars, laughing, having fun and making friends over the past year,” said Rutherford, who’s served as race director since 2017. “But as disheartening as that was, it’s been even more wonderful having them back out here.”
“I’ve been coming to these races for years,” said 36-year-old Ashley Johnson of Rappahannock County. “I just started bringing my son [six-year-old D.J.] and daughter [four-year-old Peyton] to them the year before the pandemic, and they love it. Not having this to bring them to last year was so disappointing, but they were overjoyed to come back, and so was I.”
Rutherford said the number of participants was down from previous years, but that was to be expected given some of the mitigating factors that still exist despite the waning pandemic.
“When we queried the local families that have participated in the past, some of them were concerned about social distancing requirements,” she pointed out. “Much of the concern revolved around their children either having compromised immune systems or not being able to understand the social distancing protocols.”
Rutherford also added that, while there are typically four divisions—Stock, Super Stock, Masters and Super Kids—the latter had to be shuttered this year due to social distancing requirements set forth by the International Soap Box Derby.
“Super Kids is for the small child that’s unable to pilot their own car,” she explained. “We put an experienced driver in the car with them to handle the mechanics of it, which enables them to still experience the ‘thrill of the hill.’”
Those that did take on the raceway’s trademark hill did so with vigor.
Joey Kratochvil was the first racer to punch his ticket to the All-American World Championships, which will be held later this summer in Akron, Ohio. The 18-year-old from Orange County defeated 15-year-old Eddie Rutherford, a Culpeper resident, to claim the championship in the Masters Division.
“It was a tough race,” said Kratochvil, who’s been racing for over a decade. “Eddie put up a heck of a fight. I’m just happy to be going to Akron.”
Another Orange County resident, Kayla Johnson, outlasted Rappahannock County's Maeve Ciuba to win the Super Stock crown.
Joining Kratochvil and Johnson at the World Championships will be 10-year-old Tucker Ellis from Fauquier County, who finished atop the heap in the Stock Division.
“Regardless of where they finish, we’re so proud of everyone that participated,” Rutherford said. “That holds true every year, but even more so this time around.”