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Gainesville teens find hobby in soap box derby cars
Drew Exley, left, and Sam Manzo, right, are both heading to Akron, Ohio for the Soap Box Derby Super Stock World Championships. - photo by Scott Rogers | The Times

Drew Exley and Sam Manzo get a thrill behind the steering wheel most kids their age can’t relate to. Crunched down in the seat of their soap box derby cars, these rising high school freshman from Gainesville reach speeds of up to 45 miles per hour as they fly downhill and let gravity take its course.

Best of all to them is that they’re both only 14 and this is as close to a driving experience they can do legally before earning a real license.

“My great aunt was talking with me about it and it sounded like fun,” Exley said. “It’s great to be able to get out there and drive since I’m only 14.”

Not only are Exley, who goes to Gainesville High, and Manzo, a student at Riverside Military, both enjoying the rush of sitting in the driver’s seat, but they have a chance to also be crowned the nation’s best. They are leaving today with their families as local champions in the Super Stock division for the All-American Soap Box Derby at the Akron Derby Downs in Akron, Ohio.

The entire event surrounding the derby is six days packed with ceremonies, festivities, site seeing opportunities and a parade around the city for the kids to be escorted in the back of a convertible and treated like celebrities. And, oh yeah, there’s also the race itself that pits the nation’s top drivers in a tournament-style, single-elimination format for the distinguished title of the best driver in their particular classification.

“The (All-American) Derby is back-to-the-basics, family-oriented fun,” said Barry Exley, Drew’s father.

People around this northern Ohio city are used to welcoming these kids to town every summer, according to Exley. It’s like the Little League World Series for racers on four wheels. It became such a compelling interest for writer-director-actor Corbin Bernsen that he got behind a movie titled ‘25 Hill’ in an effort to prop up this event, which was debuted in Akron on July 9.

“Racing is just a lot of fun for us to do together,” said Manzo.

This year, Exley is making his second appearance at the Akron race, while Manzo is making the first trip with his family.

For Exley, the soap box derby racing tradition runs deep as a fourth generation racer. His great grandfather, Hansford Small, was the Gainesville Soap Box Derby champion in 1937, and his aunt Nancy Small Mooney in 1972 was the first female drive in the state. On the inside of his car, he keeps a collage of pictures that his father helped install to help remind him of the family legacy in this sport.

“When I have kids, I’m going to make sure they drive too,” Drew said. “It’s awesome to be able to keep the family tradition alive.”

Manzo and his father, Chris, picked up the sport a number of years ago. All involved agree that the actual driving is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to putting a car on the track. They learn about physics, constructing the car, maintenance and what goes into the inspection process, which included sending their cars to the race site in Ohio well in advance of the race to make sure everything was in order before taking to the course known as “The Hill.”

When racing begins, they line up three cars at a time and winners advance in their heats. Just one loss, and you’re done. But getting to the championship, like in any sport, is more about the journey than just the end result. According to Exley’s father, soap box derby is a first initiative of NASCAR and teaches the same principles that the main streamed sport involves.

In addition to their love for soap box derby racing, Exley and Manzo are both black belts in karate. Exley is also involved in percussion with the Gainesville High marching band. Manzo is pursuing a pilot’s license and enjoys soccer, fishing and spending time on the family boat.

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