All in the family for many Portage Derby contestants

by DIANE SMITH | RECORD-COURIER REPORTER Published:

For most of the youngsters representing Portage County at the All American Soap Box Derby in Akron, participation is a family affair.

Of the eight Portage County youngsters going to the big event July 27, only one is not related to another of the champions.

The team includes brothers Stephen, Matt and Travis Adkins of Ravenna; J.J. Moore and his sister P.J. of Shalersville; Ravenna brothers Blake and Andrew Johnson; and Tyler Flemming of Streetsboro.

Of those champions, only three got there by winning at the Portage County Soap Box Derby in Mantua. Fleming was the masters champion, Matt Adkins was the stock winner and P.J. won in super stock. The remainder got there through the growing Soap Box Derby subculture of traveling around the nation to collect "rally points."

Travis, a 14-year-old sophomore at Bio Med Science Academy in Rootstown, qualified as a rally masters champ with 183 points. Stephen, 10, a fourth-grader at West Main Elementary in Ravenna, qualified as a rally stock champ with 182 points.

Matt, 13, an eighth-grader at Brown Middle School, would have been a rally stock champ if he had not won the Portage County Derby. He has 204 points, the fourth highest in the nation. P.J. won the Portage County super stock division and J.J won as a rally champ in super stock.

The Adkins and Moore families, who are friends, spent 10 months traveling to 19 locations across the country. The two families consider themselves one "Derby family."

JAY MOORE, dad of P.J. and J.J., sends the kids off at the top of the hill and David Adkins, dad of Stephen, Matt and Travis, greets them at the bottom. The kids say fellow racers who see them at the top of the hill think Jay Moore is their dad, and those who see them at the bottom think David Adkins is father to all of them.

The Moore and Adkins families traveled to derby events in many states, including Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Chicago, North Carolina, West Virginia and Maryland.

Rarely did they have a chance to see any local scenery because the schedule is grueling -- hit the road after work and school on a Friday night, be up at 7 a.m. to race on Saturday, finish about 12 hours later and be up the next morning to do it again before heading home.

"You do have a chance to see what some of the communities looked like from the places you drove through," Travis pointed out.

Local derby champions have their cars "impounded," meaning they can only work on them under the supervision of county race director Kelly Heritage. David Adkins said Heritage's kids are no longer young enough to race, but he puts all his energy into the event.

"Without Kelly, none of these kids would be racing," he said. "There were 43 racers in Portage County, and he probably helped with 40 of the cars. He's just a great guy."

Matt said he likes to race on the rally circuit because that means he's more experienced when it's time for the All American. "You get used to your car, and you sort of know what you're doing," he said.

The kids mentioned families that they've met through the Soap Box Derby. They included sisters Stephanie and Amy Getz of North Canton. Stephanie was last year's national points winner.

Though the fellow champs are competing against the kids, they are happy to give tips to the other kids, and try to hang out with them after the races are over, their parents said.

"THEY ALL know each other and help each other out," said Tammy Adkins, mom of Matt, Stephen and Travis. "I'm sure they don't give away all their secrets, but they do help each other out. It's kind of a pen pal situation. They do become actual friends."

The Adkins family includes 18-year-old Julia, who enjoyed racing last year and now wishes she started earlier so she could have done more before she aged out, she said.

The All-American started on July 22. In addition to the races and events related to them, there are activities for the racers, including trips to the Summit County Fair and a parade in downtown Akron. The parents said derby staff focuses on the kids and not the parents, which they said is how it should be.

"They always say, 'Hey Champ, do you need anything?' The whole week, they don't address you as anything other than 'Champ,'" Travis said.

More than 500 racers will compete that weekend, from all over the nation and even from other countries. This year, the kids and their parents know many other racers from the rally circuit, and plan to cheer for all of them, not just their own children.

The board sponsors events to promote the Soap Box Derby to encourage other families to join them. Travis, who won an event at the Portage County derby last year, sheepishly admitted that he signed autographs at one event.

"When we tell people what we did, and that we went to 19 places in 10 months, they say, 'Maybe we'll join you next year,' " Adkins said. "That's what we're going for."

Email: dsmith@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4158

Facebook: Diane Smith, Record-Courier

Twitter: @DianeSmith_RC

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