“When I saw these kids at the races hugging and celebrating each other’s wins – that’s when I fell in love with the sport. These kids have so much fun and they really respect each other.”
– John Austin
On July 25, Owensboro Soap Box Derby racer Kelsey Settles made history. Before that day, it had been 77 years since anyone from Kentucky won the Rally Division World Championship in Akron, Ohio. Then, in the span of five minutes, Lukas Ramey (Madisonville) won the Stock Division Championship, Tyler Peterson (Bowling Green) won the Superstock Division Championship, and Kelsey won the Masters Division – the first time in history any state has ever swept all three divisions.
“I watched them both win, so then I knew the pressure was on me. I really wanted to win and not mess it up,” Kelsey said, laughing.
It was a feat that earned national media attention, including an article in the New York Times.
The soap box derby world started to wonder what was going on in Owensboro. Was it a fluke? Or was there something more to it?
If you ask the three champs, it’s “all in the driving.” The Owensboro track at Ben Hawes is Kelsey’s home track. But Tyler and Lukas both have great success racing at Ben Hawes as well.
Soap Box Derby Racing in Owensboro has an on-and-off-again history dating back to 1951, when Owensboro hosted its first Soap Box Derby at a permanent track in the Bon Harbor Hills area, which it continued to host for 13 years, until 1964. Then, after a 36-year hiatus, Owensboro Lions Club member Jim Ivy introduced the idea to bring back the Soap Box Derby as a fundraiser for the Lions Club in 2001. At that time, they started holding races on the hill at Bluff Avenue, next to Chautauqua Park.
In 2007, the Lions Club discussed a plan with the commonwealth to build a permanent track on a hill at Ben Hawes Park. When the city purchased Ben Hawes from the commonwealth, it really helped their cause.
The Lions Club broke ground on the track in 2011 and hosted the first local race in 2012. Instead of one local race a year, they expanded to rally races, where the winners could advance to the nationals at Akron. Local racers then had the opportunity to practice at Ben Hawes once a month and race four times a year. Coincidentally, it was Kelsey Settles who drove her car down the hill that day to cut the ribbon.
Local Soap Box Derby enthusiast John Austin says much thought and consideration went into building the track at Ben Hawes. “A group of us went up to Akron and studied their track. We modeled ours after Akron for slope and speed.” That may be the answer to the Owensboro racers’ historic run at Akron in July, but the feat is still remarkable.
“As my dad says, we may not be the fastest in the world every day, but we were that day,” Kelsey admitted, flashing her signature smile that hasn’t left her face since July.
After Akron, the whole Soap Box Derby world is focusing on Owensboro, which was evident on Saturday, August 15, when 49 cars from eight other states flocked to Owensboro for a rally race at Ben Hawes.
The Owensboro Lions are proud to showcase the track and promote the sport in any way they can. “We have one of the premier gravity racing tracks in the United States right here in Owensboro,” Austin said.
Soap Box Derby cars can reach 36 miles per hour, and are gravity pulled. At the starting line, the cars are held with magnetic paddles that release when a trigger is pulled.
Speed is gained by squaring the car, keeping everything clean, aligning the car, and making sure the spindles are straight. But the main factor is weight adjustment. Where the weights are placed determines whether the weight is pulling or pushing the car, depending on the slope of the hill. Aerodynamics also plays a factor, which is why drivers scrunch down in the car as low as possible.
But really, it’s simple math. The fastest way between two points is a straight line, so the straighter the car goes down the hill, the faster it reaches the finish line. That’s why driving is the most important thing.
Owensboro Living spoke to the three world champs to get their perspective on that historic day, and the track that helped get them there:
How did racing on this track help you prepare for Akron?
Lukas – It’s been a lot of help for me. I got all four firsts that I needed to get to Akron on this track.
Tyler – This track is faster than my home track, so it prepared me for the speed at Akron.
Kelsey – The speed of this track is what helped prepare me for Akron. Ever since I won, we’ve been getting all kinds of calls from people wanting to race here.
Tyler – They can look, but they’re just gonna see it’s all in the driver. There’s really no difference in how we set up our cars than how somebody from Chattanooga sets up their cars.
Kelsey – They might have their little tweaks, but really the driver is what matters.
What do you enjoy about this sport?
Lukas – I enjoy being with the family and having friends that you race with. I also enjoy learning about weights and how they affect the car – and aerodynamics and everything else that goes into it.
Tyler – I like that it’s fast. But I also like hanging out with my dad – my pit crew chief. And my sister races, too.
Kelsey – I like the family togetherness of it. And that I make friends from all over the country. For 11 years I’ve done this and I can’t stop. I’m retired from racing now, but I’m still out here. I don’t have to be here but I want to be here to help everybody else.
What’s next for you?
Kelsey – I can’t stay away from this sport. I enjoy helping everybody else. Helping my cousins is my main priority right now. I’m the pit crew and car handler.
Tyler – I’m still out to win. I have to defend my championship now. I can’t let anybody take that from me.
Lukas – Oh, I’m just getting started.