At first, looking at the top of the hill at the corner of Menifee and Craig roads half a mile up, it was difficult to tell anything was moving.
Then, in no time, the racers were whizzing by, gravity yanking the vehicles down the slope, their drivers piloting in calm silence despite the ever-increasing speeds.
This scene wasn’t just any type of motor vehicle race, though. These were soap box cars racing in Saturday morning’s Soap Box Derby in Menifee, which the Valley-Wide Recreation and Park District has put on annually since 2012. The race took place on Menifee Road between Holland and Craig roads – what organizers described as “the perfect racing hill.”
Most of the racers are children, some as young as eight, but the competition wasn’t just limited to youngsters; the oldest driver was in his 70s. The 21 racers in this year’s event competed in four brackets, which Valley-Wide referred to as big wheels, limo wheels, training wheels and rubber wheels. The final bracket had to be turned into a separate category at the last moment when it was discovered that only two racers were operating soap boxes with rubber tires, organizers said.
Eleven of the racers were using soap boxes donated to Valley-Wide by the Desert Recreation District in the Coachella Valley. The rest were racing in vehicles of their own, many of them homemade.
The vehicles are all categorized based on weight, Valley-Wide board member Noah Rau explained.
“There’s rules for the cars, and I know they have some workshops throughout the year that will help them in building their cars,” Rau said. “Beyond that, there’s the check-in, and they have to weigh in and everything the day before.”
Rau’s own son, Benjamin, 10, was competing in the derby Saturday.
“He’s all smiles,” Rau said. “That’s the whole thing. You can see him just cruising down with a big smile.”
Benjamin would later go on to take first place in the big wheels division.
Danielle Shields said it was her 11-year-old son Kingston’s second time racing in the derby.
“He’s having a great time,” she said. “He got second place last year, so he got a big trophy, so this year is just an extra bonus.”
Shields said Kingston got involved in the derby after she heard about the event from her friend, Melissa Seward, who also previously had a child compete.
But it will be Kingston’s last year of racing, she said, as he is beginning to outgrow the soap box they purchased and fixed up.
“My other son will take over and race the car next year,” Shields said.
Pat Chamberland, grandmother of Katelyn, 9 – who won in the rubber wheels division – Jared, 12 and Jacob, 14, said her grandchildren have been involved in the derby for about the last six years. Chamberland said her husband built all of their cars for them.
“We go to Valley-Wide for other activities and then I guess my husband saw the Soap Box Derby, so they signed up,” Chamberland said. “So grandpa built all the cars with them and they work on them all together.”
Meanwhile, Illisa Baldonado, 16, returned to the derby for the first time in three years to take first place in the training wheels division.
“She’s actually been here since the beginning – she started when she was 8 years old,” her mom Melissa Rel-Baldonado, said.
She said her daughter initially got started out in the derby when she won a kit car at a Fourth of July event. After that, since they were not satisfied with the original car, her dad Raymond Baldonado built her a whole new one. He plans to retire this year’s car and build yet another next year – and possibly a second one as well.
“Next year he might go,” Illisa Baldonado said.
The full list of winners in each category included Bracket A for big wheels with Benjamin Rau in first place and Byan Carstensen in second; Bracket B for limo wheels where Walker Muzychenko took first place with Vincent Scola in second; Bracket C for training wheels saw Illisa Baldonado win first place and Tony Shumaker won second and in the Exhibition Bracket for rubber wheels Shamous Waite was first, and Katelyn Chamberland was second.
Will Fritz can be reached by email at email@example.com.