Now that she is the only person in the 57-year history of the All-American Soap Box Derby to win at the nationals in Rubber City two years running, maybe somebody could explain to Danielle Del Ferraro just what exactly soapboxes have to do with anything. "Soapbox?" says Danielle hesitantly, as if considering the possibility that not knowing the answer to such a stupid question might be grounds for a sort of retroactive disqualification. "I think you'd better ask my dad about that."
The original Derby cars were built from anything one could scavenge, usually old packing crates. They were a far cry from the sleek fiberglass-covered wooden shell that Danielle, 13, piloted to victory in the Masters division at Derby Downs in Akron two weekends ago. She also won her division's award for best construction for the second straight year, which could explain how Danielle enforced a Penskelike domination on the Soap Box world this season, with four wins and two second-place finishes in the six races she entered before the Derby.
But even that didn't make her a prohibitive favorite to win in Akron, where she won the Kit Car division last year. After all, she would be competing against kids as old as 16. Moreover, no champion had ever returned to Akron and won a second title. "The fact that it had never been done hangs over you," says Danielle's father, Ed. "A lot of people can't assimilate what it takes to win. They think you just roll down a hill, but it isn't that. It takes a lot of concentration from a child to cancel out what's going on around her. When you go down the track, your wheels can be an inch away from the wheels of the car alongside you. If you get scared and pull away, you lose. Any movement consumes time. But Danielle doesn't leave her course; she knows what to do."
Derby Downs is known as a driver's track, requiring a cool hand on the wheel. "I learned how to hold the steering wheel straight and stuff," says Danielle. "I used to jerk it a lot. There's just, like, a certain way to drive it."
Right. All of these technical intricacies have evolved since the family's move to Akron from Long Island seven years ago. Several days after their first exposure to the event—watching the Derby on television in 1990—the Del Ferraros made a 10-mile outing from their home to Derby Downs just to look at the 953-foot hill. When the family went to a local mall to get a closer look at the cars, which were on display, it was Danielle's older brother Mike who was considered the logical candidate for a future drive. "I remember asking Mike if he'd like to give it a shot," says Ed. "He's very active in sports, but when he said he didn't know, Danielle quietly said, 'I will.' That was in the winter. By that spring we were racing."
Because Derby cars are "participant-built," it doesn't hurt to have a father who is a carpenter, as Danielle's is. "She and I get together and come up with ideas," says Ed. "You've got to use power tools to cut some of the wood, and naturally I wouldn't let her do that, but she can sit there and tell you how it all works. She really knew how the whole car was going to come together."
Now if she just knew what a soapbox was.