Sean Brown met each driver at the Piedmont Area Soap Box Derby at the end of the track.
His smiling face was the first thing they saw as they hit their brakes and the former All American Soap Box World Champion greeted each driver with a fist bump, a high-five or a hand signal to let them know they did a good job.
Brown isn’t far removed from his derby racing days. A former local champion, world champion and junior committee member - on Saturday he wore the familiar bright blue Piedmont Area Soap Box Derby committee member shirt. It’s a shirt that signifies what being a volunteer truly means - hard work, selflessness and a passion for the sport.
Dozens of volunteers wearing those shirts are what have made the Piedmont Area Soap Box Derby a success for 17 years. The derby was the brainchild of Tony Troilo and Frankie Gilmore as a way to pay tribute to 75 years of their family’s business - Rosson & Troilo. The first race was held in 2003 and on Saturday many of the original volunteers remembered how they first got their start and why they keep coming back.
H.B. Chapman IV has had all of his children participate in the derby. Now, his son Miguel competes in the Super Kids races for children with disabilities, but H.B. says his involvement has more to do with the community than his family.
“I went into Rosson Troilo, basically to talk to Frankie about getting a tire changed when they were there and she said ‘do you know anything about Soap Box Derby?’ I said like the Little Rascals and she said ‘yes, be here Thursday night.’”
He came to the initial meeting and the rest is history.
“I wanted to help because I had children,” Chapman said. “I started out wanting to do it for my children and my interest in the mechanical side. What it evolved into is more of a volunteer effort because you can see the difference in the community.”
He looked around early Saturday morning at the multitude of youngsters from as young as 7 years old all the way to 18 year olds running around, getting pumped up about going down the hill. He smiled to himself, knowing that someday those kids will grow up to be volunteers.
“You’re raising the youth of a community,” Chapman said. “It takes everybody, you create well-rounded kids, well-rounded people.”
Around him were young people wearing red shirts - signifying they were members of the junior committee. Those committee members were racers who decided to take on more responsibility and now they help the younger drivers learn about brake pads, lines to follow on the track and just being a good sportsman.
“The derby is a family,” Chapman said. “Once you get that common core, then you look for people with similar interests to bring them in.”
That’s how Tony Windland got started. His daughter Suzie and son Andrew both raced. Now Suzie is a volunteer as well and Tony has stayed involved - for the kids.
“It’s just to get the kids involved,” Windland said. “It’s good for the families and its good for the kids. It teaches them too, it teaches them responsibility, it teaches them a work ethic, a mutual respect.”
Paul Bates was so involved they named the racetrack after him.
Another original, Bates spent countless hours helping build the racetrack along Cherry Hill Road, grading the track, coordinating the volunteer construction crew and putting his finger prints on virtually ever part of the track.
He did it not for the recognition, but for the racers who clearly enjoy spending time at the derby track.
“I enjoy watching the kids race, I like to see the smile on their faces,” Bates said. “The people that come out to help, they’re my friends - some of the best friends I’ve ever had.”
Walking down the track, there are volunteer stories galore. Each volunteer has an origin story, and many of them begin with helping their own children - but they continue with the bonds formed at the track.
Robin Johnson, who coordinates the heat sheets at the bottom of the track, first became involved in 2012 when her daughter Emily Maley started racing. By 2014, she was heavily involved as a volunteer and her daughter has become a three-time winner of the sportsmanship award. The two of them routinely cheer on each racer as they come down the track, trading jokes and sharing stories as the drivers are pulled off and readied for another run.
Seeing how the volunteers jumped at every chance to help the drivers inspired her to do the same.
“Everyone pitched in to help,” Robin said. “I was a single mom at the time and I”m at the top of the hill and there was that core group always there for you. Everybody wanted to help everyone out.”
Fontaine Halsey is a visible member of that core group. On Saturday, Super Stock racer Kayla Crawford made a beeline for Halsey early in the morning. He was helping organize cars lining up to go to the top of the hill when Crawford found him, quickly enveloping him in a hug.
For a moment, the two stood in an embrace as Halsey shared years of fatherly advice, before sending Crawford away with a playful pat. He got involved originally because of his competitive nature, but now he’s the encouraging voice always giving positive advice to the kids - it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you conduct yourself while doing it.
“When I learned Culpeper was having it, my daughter (Amanda) got to drive because a sponsor sponsored a car through our church,” Halsey said. “We raced about seven years, we’ve met so many wonderful families and people involved with their kids. Now that Amanda aged out and moved on, I continued because I enjoy helping children - some don’t have dads, some have dads that aren’t mechanically inclined. We do whatever we can do to help the kids.”
Halsey is famous for his joking with the drivers, sometimes needling them, other times cracking jokes at the expense of volunteers. It’s all an effort to keep them at ease.
“The kids are a little bit nervous, sometimes they don’t feel comfortable about what they’re doing so I like to joke with them and get that fear and stress away and just have a good time,” Halsey said.
Just a few feet away from Halsey, Troy Frazier calls drivers names though his loudspeaker, directing them to their cars and keeping everything moving smoothly at the bottom of the track. He originally started in 2012 with his daughter Katie and son Jacob (now a junior committee member himself), and he was quickly recruited to be an integral part of the organization.
“I was totally overwhelmed with how welcoming and inclusive the organization has been,” Frazier said. “That’s just what fed into it. It’s whole mission has been the sportsmanship, the kids, the values, what comes out of it. Making an impact and the good it does for our community, once I saw all that I was all in.”
Now with neither of his kids driving, one may assume that it was time to walk away, but Frazier said that thought never crossed his mind.
“The bottom line is your values never change, if your values are about the kids, our community - whether your kid is racing or not - these are all our kids, that’s how I treat it,” Frazier said. “Whether they win or not, they’re all champions in my eyes.”
Thom Pellikaan, a committee member from Rappahannock County, has eyes for champions. Last year Jeremiah Foscato, a driver from Rappahannock, won the Master’s Division and this year Pellikaan helped recruit 10 drivers from Rappahannock to compete in the Piedmont Area Soap Box Derby. He hopes to add even more next year, as they have 14 cars sponsored in the county available for drivers. He says it’s evident the commitment people have in the county to help support the youth through the derby.
“My people in Rappahannock County are into the Soap Box Derby because of that,” Pellikaan said. “The people from Rappahannock County know they are supporting their drivers and the environment of the Piedmont Area Soap Box Derby. We’re so proud that Culpeper is doing all of this for us. I’m so proud of the activity we have in Rappahannock County with all of our drivers. I hope next year we’ll be able to get some of the schools involved with the STEM program.”
The derby’s involvement with the STEM programs at local schools also led to the annual Gravity Challenge, which this year hosted teams from seven Culpeper County Public Schools. Almost every single volunteer that helps during the annual race was there for the Gravity Challenge as well.
“The volunteers make a world of difference,” Sheila Rutherford, Piedmont Area Soap Box Derby Race Director said. “The volunteers make this race happen, without them this would all fall apart.”
The volunteers play the roles of mentor, cheerleader, counselor and sometimes - a second parent.
Brown recalls working with his dad Todd during his race days, but he always had a stable of other fathers he could turn to for advice.
“A lot of the other dads that were on the senior committee - Fontaine, H.B., Paul Bates - another fatherly figures, just having a different perspective I think was big,” Brown said.
Now, he hopes to continue that tradition by showing the kids the passion that he has for the race, and passing it along.
“If they see excitement from someone else who’s not racing, or who has raced before, it can only help their desire and their passion,” Brown said.
Troilo just shakes his head when he thinks about the volunteers and the impact they and the derby have had on the community.
He likes to tell a story, about after the first race, when a man came into Rosson Troilo and thanked Tony. At first, he wasn’t sure what he was thanking him for. His story brought tears to Tony’s eyes and ensured that the derby would continue on.
“He said my family couldn’t talk, my son and I couldn’t get along together,” Troilo said. “He said my grandson wanted to race and the next thing they know they’re working in the garage two hours a night together. He said ‘you brought my family back together.’ I walked out of my office and over to Frankie (Gilmore) and said I don’t care if we ever do another race, that was the most successful thing we ever did and we’re doing it again.”
Seventeen years later, the race has become one of Culpeper’s success stories - thanks in part to the strong volunteer nucleus.
“We’ve been blessed with so many great people,” Troilo said. “What did we do to be so successful in getting these volunteers? It’s amazing. We’re just very blessed.”