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A conversation with Chuck Freyer

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Chuck Freyer, 57, of West Mifflin, runs the Greater Pittsburgh Soap Box Derby, set for Sun., June 19, down Eden Park Boulevard in McKeesport. The gravity-driven contest for wooden cars is in its 28th year. The world championship -- the All-American Soap Box Derby -- is held each year in Akron, Ohio.

 

 

How'd you get involved in this?

I had two daughters and a son in it. My kids are grown up -- that's all they talk about, us putting the cars together. My one son went to Akron.

 

How'd he do?

One time down the hill. You race against people from all over the U.S., Canada, all over the world.

 

Is there one country in which it's biggest?

It's big in Germany. Germany every year for the last four years, they all come to the race in Akron.

 

How do the Germans do?

They haven't won the All-American.

 

You no longer have kids in the derby, yet you're still directing it. What keeps you interested?

I still have a lot of friends in it, nieces and nephews. I like to help them do it. The kids, they build the car. They come in a kit, [but] you've got to put all the nuts and bolts in it. They're doing it with the parents' help -- it's not something they can just buy. They have to work at it.

 

How much does it cost to participate?

[Derby cars] are a little bit expensive. A stock car goes for $430 -- that's without the wheels. Wheels are another hundred dollars. Master's cars are pretty close to $500. We ask parents to race for three years. We ask them to come up with $150 and we fund-raise everything else.

 

Are the wheels made of wood too?

Z-glass -- fiberglass -- [although] we still race on steel wheels. They use the fiberglass wheels in Akron.

 

Is wheel quality such a factor?

Oh yeah, because you could have bad bearings. These cars, they only lose by hundredths of a second. If we get a car that loses by more than two seconds, we know it is bad wheels.

 

The derby used to be about building a better car.

[Today] it's all driver technique. If you can drive and keep low in the car ... the hardest thing to do is to keep the car straight. The straighter you keep it, the faster you go.

 

How fast?

The year before, we had a radar gun from the Munhall Police Department. They came down the hill at 25 miles per hour. They start by gravity too -- no engine.

 

I guess there are no fiery wrecks here.

Three years ago, we had a car come down, he hit the bale of hay. It was hot; he passed out. He dented his axle.

 

Is it difficult competing for kids' attention when the derby sounds so old-fashioned?

It's tough. Most parents nowadays would rather put a child in front of a TV with a videogame. On this, you have to work with the child to get the job done. I had a car with my one daughter, we put in 200 hours making it from scratch. Now they have it down to a weekend. The main thing is the parent relationship with the child.

 

Are you going to get your grandson involved?

Oh yeah. I figure I'll be 62 when he comes down the hill.

 

The derby was started by a newspaper reporter looking for something wholesome for kids to do. Do you see newspapers starting such a contest today?

No, I don't.

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