YOUNGSTOWN Derby champion: Race changed life

Nearly 90 drivers have entered this year's Soap Box Derby.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Roy Shook Jr. mostly remembers the blasting hot day and the nervousness he felt in anticipation of the event he says changed his life: the 1965 Youngstown Soap Box Derby.
Back then, when the derby ran down Mahoning Avenue near Schenley Avenue, Shook was a self-described shy, 12-year-old farm boy from Boardman -- which was still farm country. His only racing experience was in 1964 in Warren, where he took third place.
Despite his shyness, Shook appeared before an estimated 10,000 fans on race day with his car, coined "Grandpa's Special," which he and his uncle built for $40. He beat out 61 other racers to take first place and unknowingly kicked off a long family tradition of derby champions.
"Every place you went, people knew you," said Shook, now 48 and living in Berlin Township.
The spoils of race day included a $500 savings bond, luggage, a bicycle -- something Shook had never owned -- and a four-day trip to Akron to compete in the derby finals. Race organizers even loaned the Shook family a car for the trip.
Shook used the savings bond to buy his first car years later.
Last year's winner, Nathan Horvath, received a $500 savings bond, a mountain bike and a blue blazer with a derby insignia on the breast pocket.
How he was affected: Shook said the derby taught him everything from mechanics to public speaking and showed him how hard work pays off. Basically, it set him on the path to success.
He now owns a successful bridge and road assembly and excavation business.
His derby plaque still hangs in his family room.
The derby is back, for the second year in a row, now known as the Greater Youngstown Area SoapBox Derby. It kicks off Saturday morning on Fifth Avenue near Youngstown State University.
Officials have dedicated this year's race in memory of Ryan Bretschneider, who raced last year before dying of leukemia at age 13. Bretschneider's car number, 45, will be retired.
For the area's sake, Shook hopes the derby is here to stay.
The event has had varied success since it started in 1934 and allowed racers to enter "anything on four wheels." It suffered a 24-year absence until the Jaycees sponsored a race in Canfield in 1960.
The event made its longest run from 1965 through 1972, when it died again because of safety concerns. The Uptown Kiwanis and the Youngstown Firefighters Local 312 brought it back last year.
This year: "I feel real good about having it back in the area and being the largest race in the state of Ohio," said derby director Bob Neapolitan.
He said enthusiasm for derby racing is rising across the country and said community and derby board support has helped gain interest here.
Last year the Youngstown derby saw 64 racers; this year nearly 90 drivers have entered.
Derby racing has changed a bit since Shook hit the streets in 1965.
Car shells are made of aerodynamic fiberglass and come in kits costing about $250.
But some things never change, including the family bond that building and racing derby cars can cultivate.
For the Shook family, racing runs through the ages.
His niece Jennifer won the Akron derby in 1996 and his niece Janice won there in 1998. His nephew Jared is racing this year.
If that's not enough, Shook's granddaughter was born 35 years to the day he won the 1965 derby.
Shook, who lives with his wife, Karen, plans on attending this year's race.

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