AKRON, OHIO – Kelsey Van Waart of Gretna reached the pinnacle again on Saturday at the First Energy All-American Soap Box Derby World Championships at Derby Downs in Akron, Ohio.
Van Waart, 15, raced past 48 other competitors in the Rally Super Stock division to claim her second overall Soap Box Derby World Championship.
“I would say they’re equally great accomplishments,” said Van Waart, who also won a World Championship in 2019 in the Local Masters division.
The two world championship races are the type of ones she would dream about when she was just a little girl.
“I would go and sit in the old cars in my grandpa’s basement just for fun,” Kelsey said.
Kelsey hoped that when she was old enough her family would allow her to become the third generation of Van Waarts to compete in Soap Box Derby racing following in the steps of her father Peter, grandfather Roger and great uncle Jerry.
“I was so excited to race from a young age,” Kelsey said.
Peter said expectations were high for the next generation of Van Waarts after he quit soap box racing in the early 1990s following a pair of World Championship appearances in Akron.
“Derby has always been a part of our family,” said Peter, who grew up around 132nd and Hwy 370 and graduated from Platteview High School in Springfield. “I would have to admit that my wife knew when we got married even before we had kids that we would be participating in Soap Box Derby.
“In fact, when Kelsey was born many people joked she was going to be a future Soap Box Derby World Champion. Little did we know that it would come true.”
Kelsey was just 7 years old when she started Soap Box Derby racing.
One year later in 2016 she made her first World Championships and placed sixth in Rally Stock, cementing herself in Van Waart family racing history.
Kelsey raced down the same Derby Downs hill as her relatives on her own quest to cover the 989-foot long course in the fastest time of the two other drivers in her heats.
Great uncle Jerry had first started Soap Box racing back in the 1960s while growing up in Sioux City, Iowa. Jerry’s brother, Roger, made his lone World Championship appearance in 1966 while Peter competed at the World Championships in 1988 and 1991.
“The history of having three generations is really special,” Peter said. “I know my Dad (Roger Van Waart ) and Uncle (Jerry Van Waart) are extremely proud of the kids. The opportunity for them to spend this time together is priceless. It’s a lot of fun sharing many similar memories of what I experienced growing up. In fact, many of the families I raced growing up, now race with my kids. The derby car in a way has became simpler to build, so there is not as much time building the car and there’s more time for racing. Having decades of experience definitely helps.”
All of the elder Van Waarts serve as crew members for Kelsey and her younger brother Pierce, who also competed at the World Championships this year but was eliminated in the first round.
“We have had the opportunity to learn from our mistakes to hopefully improve the speed of our car,” Peter said. “I grew up going to Akron nearly every year. Traveling and listening to my uncle and dad with my cousins. Some of the best memories were the stories being told while traveling. Being able to share that with the kids is really fun.”
Likewise, Kelsey feels fortunate to have all the “know-how” of her racing family behind her.
“It’s really fun to hear all about their experiences throughout the derby,” Kelsey said.
Kelsey made the world championships again in 2017 but missed out in 2018, which served as motivation for her to get back to Derby Downs.
In 2019, she opted to compete in the Local Masters division and won at the state level to qualify and eventually advanced through all the rounds in Akron to claim the Local Masters World Championship.
“It’s extremely hard to be a world champion,” Peter said. “You have to be lucky. You have to have a fast car with a good driver but to win the world championship it takes a good set of wheels and being in the right lane at the right time. The world championship is a race where three cars go down the hill at one time and only the winner moves on. This continues until there is only one champion. There are races where 0.001 seconds is the difference. One slight mistake driving could cost you the race.”
With that victory and her second title last week, Kelsey’s name is permanently etched in in the Derby Downs record books along with all the champions before her.
Derby Downs was built in 1936 and is to Soap Box Derby racing what the Indianapolis 500 Speedway is to automobile racing.
A barn near the race track holds past soap box derby Master Division cars that have been retired to the “Hall of Fame” after past world champions drove them.
Kelsey’s Local Masters car from her World Championship run in 2019 is included in this permanent collection.
“We get to see it every year when we go back to Akron,” Kelsey said.
COVID-19 cancelled the 2020 Soap Box World Championships. Kelsey placed ninth in Local Stock in 2021 and fourth at Local Super Stock in 2022.
This year she changed divisions again to Rally Super Stock.
“I have raced in every division,” Kelsey said. “I have bounced around in divisions, so it’s hard to have one set rival.”
At this year’s World Championships, Kelsey had several days of racing ahead of the big race day and came in third a couple of times.
On race day, things continued to play out in Kelsey’s favor as she advanced through the first three rounds to the finals.
In the blocks, Peter held Kelsey’s car in place at the top of the hill until the start signal was given.
Then Kelsey and the other two drivers were off.
Since vehicles all start at the same time and vehicles are relatively the same, the “most important part overall I would say is the driver,” Kelsey said.
“You can have a great car but paired with a bad driver and you won’t do very well,” she added. “I think my strongest trait would be my ability to have consistent driving – just being smooth with your movements with the steering wheel will help you the most!”
All of the cars, which come in an easy-to-assemble kit, have a wooden floorboard, with a Soap Box Derby shell, along with a steering wheel and brakes. The weight of car and driver are added together to determine what division racers are entered in.
As the cars made it halfway down the hill, they were neck and neck and Kelsey stayed in the zone.
“It is not usually smart to look over into other lanes, so I try my best to just be focused on my own lane,” Kelsey said. “Once the race is over we wait for the light to go off in our lane – the light is located on the bridge – to see if we had won the heat or not.”
Kelsey said it seemed like it took forever for the green light to show up in her lane.
“I was super nervous and shaking,” she recalled. “I knew the race was going to be close because the two cars I was racing were very good cars. One of which I had raced in previous world championships.”
Jess Van Waart, Kelsey’s mother, was at the bottom of the hill and the first to congratulate her but other family was at the top.
Once they made their way over, Kelsey went and gave her grandpa and uncle great big hugs as all had big smiles on their faces.
“I still get butterflies when I see the kids go down a hill,” Roger Van Waart said in a previous inteview.
Racing doesn’t end for Kelsey or Pierce with the world championships.
They spend a lot of time at the Omaha Soap Box Derby track located by Seymour Smith Park. They also have a continuous cycle of races scheduled throughout the year.
Each one tests their skills and planning.
“Every track is different so the set up for your car for that specific race will also differ from race to race,” Kelsey explained. “For example, how you arrange the weight placement in your car from the Omaha track will differ from how you would set up your car for the Kansas City track.”
Peter said it’s fun to see how far his kids have come in their development.
“Watching her have success didn’t happen overnight,” Peter said. “We spent a lot of time practicing and learning along the way. I think as a parent it teaches the kids that you have to be willing to devote time and effort to achieve success.”
Pierce has qualified for worlds three times and previously finished in the top nine.
“Kelsey and Pierce have experienced success because they are really good drivers,” Peter said. “We can tell them where we think they need to be on the track. In soap box you try to take advantage of the slope of the track as much as one can. Oversteering results in a slower time. The kids are normally smooth with their driving and this can be a competitive advantage. Again this wasn’t the case in the beginning. We had ‘growing pains’ and they learned from this and got better with experience. They really do well now and they realize how important good driving is.”
Peter said he’s glad his kids have an extended “Derby family” like he did.
“It provides the kids the opportunity to meet many different cultures and realize that there are so many similarities together,” he said.
“The common theme within this is that we have the desire to compete while having fun, but also taking the time throughout the day to compare experiences in life and learn from each other. So many memories have been created. We can share these for a lifetime. Like most people you want to win against your friends the most, but are excited to cheer them on when they win as well.
“Derby has taught my kids how to win, but also how to come back from a loss. Whether that means to not stop and just keep competing or to be someone cheering for the person that eliminated them from the race. I truly feel that this sport has impacted her other sports as she knows that you have to work hard to get better.”
Kelsey will soon be starting up high school cross country and also is involved in basketball, track, FBLA, FCA and student council at Gretna High.
The whole family will be at many of those events as well, but Soap Box Derby racing is still Peter’s favorite, especially now that his daughter is a two-time world champion.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “It’s just icing on the cake.”