Ogallala's Soap Box Joyride

Two speed racers have climbed into their little rockets on wheels, boldly braving the whipping wind racing across Ogallala. These helmeted riders are all of 9 years old, but the boy and girl both have the steely-eyed determination of veteran NASCAR road warriors as they stare down a 34-foot dive that begins an adventure on a straight stretch of asphalt more than three football fields long.

The underground paddles rise up, eager for their electronic opening. One of the dozens of parent volunteers stands poised at the top of the hill, showing grace under pressure as the official starter. He shouts outs the countdown. “Three ... two ... one!” And they’re off.

They catapult off the hill, flying faster than 30 mph on their twin 10-foot-wide lanes as they battle for victory in this 800-foot-long run. The announcer at the finish line excitedly shouts the drama into loud speakers as the bleachers shake, rattle and roll from the spirited crowd. Both daring drivers strain to keep their cool and keep those hot wheels spinning straight and true. They finish eyelashes apart, and waves of cheers keep rolling as they glide to a stop after traveling 255 feet more to the end of the track’s run-out section. Another weekend of fast and furious fun has been launched in Ogallala at the Wild West Soap Box Derby Track.

A roll down that king-sized hill is the only rocket fuel needed for these fantastic flights by riders who compete in three divisions, with ages that range from 7 to 18. They spend hours each week fine-tuning cars, aided by helping hands and screwdrivers and wrenches from dads and moms. Those days of perspiration lead to their inspiration for weekend races from April into August at one of the finest soap box derby tracks in the nation.

The only things that move faster than their cars are the smiles bursting from these kids’ faces, said Dave Barrett, the Wild West race director who led a community of volunteers to get this track built in the fall of 2006. Even though Barrett stresses that all sorts of safety preparations make these soap box rides smooth sailing, there’s sometimes a little fear in the eyes of a young racer during the start of that first ride.

“As soon as I can get them safely down the hill for the first time they just smile from ear to ear,” Barrett said. “It’s true joy. Their parents can’t believe it. It’s really gratifying to see.”

Parents have been gratified by Barrett’s dedicated leadership, which since 2007 has allowed about 50 local drivers each year to compete on what has been honored as one of the three finest tracks in the nation by the International Soap Box Derby Association in Akron, Ohio. Wild West, along with Omaha and Scottsbluff, is one of the three sanctioned soap box derby tracks in Nebraska. Barrett touts the concession stand and electronic timing, but he adds that the restrooms at his track run laps around the world championship facilities at Akron.

“We’ve got indoor plumbing,” Barrett said, with a chuckle.

And a new addition to this unique track shines on this season with one of the sport’s rarest sights: nighttime racing on a soap box derby track. When the Ogallala high school stadium upgraded its lighting system last fall, Wild West acquired the eight old light poles from the football field.

“We light up like daylight,” said Barrett, a longtime owner of a tire store in town. “The kids are having a ball.”

Barrett began his mission to bring a track to Ogallala after seeing the enjoyment the sport brought to his daughter, Holli, when she raced in the mid-1990s at a former North Platte street track. About 10 years ago, he got a street track built up on a hill by the Boot Hill Cemetery landmark, but the maintenance and the safety factors were tough sledding. Always an optimist, Barrett was able to acquire a helpful donation as a member of the Ogallala Optimist Club. Then an army of volunteers got this track up in running.

“It’s one big family,” said Melissa Skalsky. “It’s like no organization I’ve ever been involved in.”

Melissa knows a lot about a big racing family. She and her husband, John, are active volunteers at the track and also serve as the pit crew for three talented drivers, their children, Sage, 14, Hunter, 12, and 9-year-old Ethan.

While her husband gives pep talks and tucks the kids into their cars, her duties are to keep the wheels spinning before they’re lifted onto a trailer by volunteers from the wrestling and football teams and towed up the hill. “I’m an unpaid pit mom,” she joked.

For Melissa, and many others, that job is priceless.