There is nothing more pure in racing than a side-by-side duel that ends with a photo finish.
Just ask Parker teens Allison and JP Pankoff, who have racked up nearly 100 trophies over their careers as Soap Box Derby racers. Things have changed a bit in the sport, one that has become somewhat of a lost art with the advent of video games and skateboards and smart phones.
Whereas the car-building process took a year for one race during the heyday of Soap Box Derby racing, the drivers now bring their vehicles to organized competitions all over the country throughout the year. There is very little difference between the cars — slight modifications for track conditions and the like are allowed — and races are ultimately decided by the skill of the drivers.
As the Pankoffs’ dad, Buzz, puts it, a race is “one giant physics experiment.” It’s a straight race at a 6 percent grade for 1,000 feet. The cars reach up to 40 mph, and many sprints are decided by inches.
Allison, 14, laments the fact that she was edged out of first place by a mere .010 seconds during the National Derby Rally national championship in Bowling Green, Ky., July 28-Aug. 3. But she and her family are nonetheless proud to take second in a highly competitive contest against the best racers in the country.
The Pankoffs consider it a “family win.” Together, they travel, discuss car adjustments, and, if all goes as planned, celebrate. The educational piece is a bonus, but Buzz Pankoff doesn’t lose sight of the biggest benefit.
“The foremost thing is using it as another outlet to spend time with the kids,” he says. “That time is irreplaceable.”
Buzz Pankoff, who acts as coach along with his wife, Judy, grew up racing Soap Box Derby cars and passed the tradition on to his kids. JP, a 15-year-old sophomore at Legend High School, recently retired from the sport, but enjoyed an accomplished career. He began racing Soap Box Derby cars at the age of 9. JP says someday he will probably introduce his own children to the pastime.
For now, he is using his knowledge to help his little sister on the racetrack. And it’s clearly working.
“He gave us all of the information we needed to make both cars competitive,” said Buzz Pankoff, referring to the recent derby nationals. In almost the same breath, he gives a nod to his daughter’s abilities, noting that second place in a national competition is a major achievement.