To say Mikey Racanelli is off to a great start with his racing career would be an understatement. The 11-year-old qualified for the 78th All-American Soap Box Derby World Championship Race in Akron, Ohio. Racanelli and his parents spent a week in Akron, which climaxed with the big race on July 25. Competing against 480 racers from around the world, Racanelli managed to win one of his four heats. Not bad for a kid who ran his first race down the Circle Bridge in April.

Racanelli finished fifth that day, driving a car he had built with his own hands. Racanelli’s father spent $600 to purchase the kit to make a Stock Car model. It took the younger Racanelli 15-20 hours over the course of a month to put the car together. His dad supervised and occasionally tightened a connection. The car had a weight limit, including driver, of 200 pounds. Racanelli weighs 65 pounds and the car weighed 70, so weights were added to bring it up to racing specs. 

After Forest Park, Racanelli set his sights on a race in Naperville. Prior to the start, father and son received valuable assistance from a welder from Iowa. He let them borrow his alignment tools and lubricants for the wheels. It was a lot of work, but they had the wheels perfectly aligned for the race. They sped down an inclined street in an industrial park. Racanelli took first.

Next up, was a race in Geneva. Racanelli again out-raced the competition. It was his ticket to the world championships. “I felt pretty awesome when I qualified for Akron,” he said. His car was impounded by officials and shipped to Akron, so it couldn’t be tampered with before the big race. In the meantime, his father purchased alignment tools from the Iowan, who was gracious enough to deliver them. (Mike Sr. mentioned there are websites where other racers can buy them.)

But there is more to racing than building a fast car. There is, of course, the driving. “You have to keep the straightest line,” Racanelli said, “and avoid bumps.” Being brand new to racing was a disadvantage for Racanelli. In Akron, he would be up against drivers who had been behind the wheel for years. 

The family arrived in Akron on July 18 and immediately became citizens of Soap Box Nation. 

“There were parents who raced in the ’70s, with grandparents who raced in the ’50s,” said Mike Sr. Generations of racers made the annual pilgrimage to Akron. The family met racers from all over the country, as well as those who traveled from Japan, China and New Zealand.

“The families bonded at the pool at night,” Mike Sr. said, “They called me ‘Chicago Mike.’ These guys were killing me with their accents.” 

The racers were also bonding but with buttons. Mikey Racanelli made two personalized buttons, one of which celebrated his hometown of Forest Park. Racers exchanged these and hung up hotel towels festooned with buttons.

“I made friends in Akron from all over,” Racanelli recalled, “I exchanged contacts with kids from Massachusetts, Connecticut and Wisconsin.” Besides the friendships, Team Racanelli picked up 25 fresh tips to make their car faster.

The race organizers kept the drivers busy every day. They had a play date at the University of Akron’s recreation center. They had a Pinewood Derby competition, so Racanelli found himself building another car. When the races started with full-size cars, he noticed, “The cars were faster and the drivers more experienced and skillful” than he had seen at previous competitions. “I lost in both of the first-round heats but won one heat.” 

There were seven divisions of racers, including one for kids with special needs, called Superkids. These were two-seaters, with the special-needs racer in back. “They had to duck down to be aerodynamic,” Mike Sr. observed. “A girl won. There was not a dry eye, when she was announced.” Just for the record, the majority of the derby racers were female.

The Akron track is the only one with three lanes. It looks as professional as any NASCAR circuit. Comparing it to the Forest Park competition, Mikey said, “There were 10 times as many racers and 10 times as many cars.” 

“The awards ceremony was like the Super Bowl,” his dad chimed in, “Confetti cannons were going off. The trophies were 5 feet high.”

On the return trip from Akron, the family made stops at Cedar Point Amusement Park, the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame. At each attraction, Racanelli proudly waved the Forest Park flag. 

He has made a two-year commitment to continue racing. He has three races lined up for the fall, in Naperville and Green Bay. He’s also planning to race in the winter at the almost-deserted Charlestowne Mall. Still, he will never forget the thrill of that first trip down the Circle Bridge.

“Circle was the steepest fastest track I’ve raced on,” Racanelli said. “The racers thought the Circle Bridge was so cool.” Mike Sr. is thankful to his friend, Bill Gerst, for introducing the sport to his son and many other Forest Park kids. 

“It was absolutely a brand new thing and Billy organized the race. He invited us to the meeting before the race and Mikey sat in the car.” The boy was instantly hooked on a new hobby.

What Forest Park did was so unique,” Mike Sr. said, “The Greater Chicago Open might be moved from Naperville to Circle Bridge.” He hopes the competition will include Superkids. 

One thing is for sure. Mikey Racanelli will not be driving his custom car because Soap Box rules compel him to race in the Super Stock division. That means the field is wide open and the driver who takes the checkered flag in Forest Park might be heading to Akron. 

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.

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