Chris Suozzi’s word of the moment is "align."
As someone who is heavily involved in workforce development initiatives, especially with youth, Suozzi likes to bring that effort full circle -- into alignment -- for kids to see the why of what they’re doing.
Add in the fact that his father, Joseph, grew up in an era when kids were hands-on with projects, and he won a 1951 soap box championship with his own self-built miniature car. Who’d have thought that a modern-era miniature car derby would work so well into that mix?
It all aligns perfectly with downtown officials' and Suozzi's goals.
“My dad grew up in the 50s … everybody is working with their hands, they're mechanically inclined, and then all of a sudden, we went away from that, and we went all towards a college thing. And then all of a sudden, now we're looking at, hey, we need technicians, we need skilled trades again, and plumbers and electricians and carpenters and builders,” he said during an interview with The Batavian. “So, it's trying to change the mindset, again, of parents, and guidance counselors … that you're successful if you're a mechanic or a technician, just like you would be as a doctor, or a lawyer, or whatever the case may be. Working with your hands is just as important as working in a textbook, so we’ve just got to level that out right now.”
Take Suozzi’s passion to get kids excited and more knowledgable about skilled trades and available local jobs, his father’s prior involvement and enthusiasm for building his own racing vessel, and add Batavia Business Improvement District’s interest in hosting a fun, family-friendly event, and the BID Boxcar Derby was born.
The race is set for August 27 down Ellicott Avenue in Batavia. Kids from two categories, ages 7 to 10 and 11 to 13, will make and decorate their own cars, use hands-on basic science, technology, math, and engineering skills in the process, and have fun discovering how such skills can be used in real life.
“That’s what excites me about doing these events,” Suozzi said.
BID Executive Director Shannon Maute liked the idea as a community activity, she said. Plus, she promised her former Eli Fish boss, Matt Gray, that she would bring a derby here in her new BID role.
"Matty used to hear the races going off from his house, and he used to run down to watch; it was one of his favorite childhood memories. So when I talked about doing more activities for kids, he asked that I bring back the 'soapbox derby.' Everyone I mentioned the derby to all had such great reactions and memories, that there was no way I wasn’t going to bring it back," Maute said. "This is a community-based event that we would like to grow bigger every year, and next year we may even have adults racing."
She wants everyone’s children and grandchildren to also gain those same memories for when they’re older, she said.
Slots for the derby are nearly filled, with just a few left in each category. Thanks to sponsorships from Genesee Gateway Local Development Corporation, GLOW With Your Hands and Genesee Lumber, registration for participants is $10, which includes the car materials, entry and a post-race picnic, Maute said. Volunteers are needed to help build the cars and on race day, from the start and finish lines to the check-in point.
Spectators are encouraged to line up along Ellicott Avenue, starting from Richmond Avenue and down the hill toward Washington Avenue. There will be 28 participants vying for a top winner spot through elimination rounds. A black and white checkered sign, ramps, hay bales and — hopefully, Maute said — lots of cheering and clapping for the racers.
There will be first, second and third place winners in each of the two categories, and a grand winner will receive a memorial plaque in honor of Suozzi’s father Joseph, brother Patrick and sister Teresa Wormley, all of who died much too young, Suozzi said.
Participants will be able to pick up their materials at 10 a.m. July 23 in Jackson Square. They can stay and build their cars right there, or take them home and do it.
After Joseph Suozzi won his 1951 local championship, he went on to a race in Rochester, where he lost to another competitor who ended up racing in the nationals in Akron, Ohio. The trademarked term of Soap Box Derby was founded in Ohio, with the first race reportedly in 1933. Cars were not powered by gasoline or any other type of fuel; they simply rolled down the hill with a child inside.
According to Ohiohistory.org, Myron Scott, a Dayton reporter, covered one of these races and decided that children across the United States could enjoy this activity, so he began to promote it across the country. In 1934, Dayton held the first "All-American Race," where soap box racers from across the country brought their creations to race. The following year, the race moved to Akron, Ohio due to its hillier terrain. Since 1935, the All-American Soap Box Derby has taken place in Akron.
In 1936, Akron city officials decided to build a permanent facility for the race. With the assistance of the Works Progress Administration, one of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal programs, the city completed Derby Downs, a soap box racetrack, the website states.
Thousands of children from across the United States and from other nations -- including Joe Suozzi's competitor -- have come to race their creations at Derby Downs every year since the track's completion. The only exception to this was during World War II, when many activities, including soap box derbies, came to a halt so that people could concentrate on the war effort.
Kids would use various materials, including wooden boxes and crates for soap or apples, random lumber, and wheels from roller skates, or bicycles. Suozzi remembers that his father kept the wheels from his derby car in the garage, and would talk about the thrill of the race.
BID is providing car kits, including the wood and wheels, valued at more than $200, Maute said.
“Not everyone can afford that. We want everyone to be able to do this,” she said. “It’s just something fun for the community.”
Gray was not available for comment.
For more information or to donate or volunteer, email [email protected]
Submitted photos of Joseph Suozzi, top, Patrick Suozzi, and Teresa Wormley. Above, a slight but long incline from Richmond Avenue down Ellicott Avenue alongside Centennial Park will serve as the venue on derby race day. Photo by Howard Owens.