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Soap Box Derby Memories

Looking Back At The First 25 Years Of City Competition

Billy Evans was 10 years old when he captured the first Jamestown Area Soap Box Derby in 1985. P-J file photo

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article ran in The Post-Journal on May 24, 2009 to commemorate the 25th running of the Jamestown Area Soap Box Derby. With the announcement this week that the 2020 event has been canceled, it was deemed appropriate to take a trip down memory lane and review some of the highlights of the first quarter-century of races from the local participants.

Tony Purpura carefully arranged the newspaper clippings so a photographer could get a snapshot of the Jamestown Area Soap Box Derby director and his pieces of history.

Many of the articles from The Post-Journal archives had yellowed, but the memories endure for Purpura, who, along with his dedicated group of volunteers, has been preparing for the 25th running of the local derby this Saturday at the John S. Sinatra Memorial Track adjacent to Diethrick Park on Falconer Street.

“Just great memories of thousands of kids,” Purpura said.

Following is a partial trip down memory lane.

Drivers from the 1985 Jamestown Area Soap Box Derby prepare to head down the hill on Baker Street at Bergman Park. P-J file photo

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Feb. 2, 1985

The Post-Journal

For the next four months, the 45 children entered in the 1985 Jamestown Area Soap Box Derby — aided by their parents or guardians — will be spending a fair amount of time in basements and/or garages as the construction of their soap box cars gets into full swing.

The derby is scheduled for June 1 on Baker Street at Bergman Park. Trial date is set for May 25 and the rain date is June 8. The winner will automatically qualify for the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio on Aug. 10.

Drivers from the 1985 Jamestown Area Soap Box Derby prepare to head down the hill on Baker Street at Bergman Park. P-J file photo

A construction seminar, the first of three, was held last Saturday at York Steak House in Chautauqua Mall, and more than 60 people were on hand to ask questions and learn about the rules and specifications governing the construction of the cars.

Tony Purpura, the derby director, and Alex DiMaio, chief race car inspector, conducted the hour-long seminar, which included an overview of the critical construction areas.

“I went to Akron in 1984 to see what it was all about,” Purpura said. “I never would have dreamed 25 years of success.”

Need proof?

Three times Jamestown has conducted the largest derby in the country; five times it has had the national director of the year; three times it has been named the outstanding race city; and twice it has had world champions.

“Who would have guessed it?” Purpura said.

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June 1, 1985

The Post-Journal

Billy Evans had to postpone his birthday party for one day, but the delay was well worth the wait for the 10-year-old from Lakewood.

Using a strategy he picked up from another racer, Evans, who turned 10 Saturday, won six of seven races in his Pizza Hut car, including the final against a determined John Morreale, to capture the Jamestown Area Soap Box Derby Junior Division (9-12) championship before a large turnout at the Baker Street course.

Evans, who took the winners’ bracket in the double-elimination derby, was extended to two races with Morreale, who came through the losers’ bracket, before the former won the last race of the day.

For his efforts, Evans earned an all-expense-paid trip to the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio; a $500 savings bond; a bicycle; a huge trophy; and a windbreaker jacket.

Evans ran in Lane 2 in the 86th, and final, race and he used a strategy he learned earlier in the day to defeat Morreale going away.

Evans drove far to the right, close to the curb, came back to the middle of the lane where he held a comfortable lead and cruised to the win in 34.28 seconds.

“In the beginning, nobody figured about going off to the edge,” Evans said. “So I just had to keep low, going straight. When I came over one time I saw Adam Rickerson do it and he won. And so I tried it and I won.”

Evans’ victory made his dad, Bill, quite proud, too.

“I’m just terribly excited myself,” he said, “but I’m probably more excited for him because I really know what a wonderful experience it is for him to go through the many months that were put into building the car and to come out there and succeed.”

Charles Sinatra is a former two-time winner of the local derby, having won the event in 1946 and 1947, when it was known as the Orange Crate Derby. His allegiance to the event has never waned.

“First of all, when we started it, Dr. Sinatra gave me a call,” Purpura said. “He wanted to be on the committee. … He came on board from day one.”

By 1998, the race was moved from Baker Street to its current location on Falconer Street. Thanks to Sinatra’s generosity, a new track was built in his father’s memory.

“He came to me and said, ‘Let’s build a track,” Purpura recalled. “I asked him where he wanted to put the track and he said Diethrick Park.

“I said, OK, let’s do it.”

Ironically, the person to win the first championship on the new track was Leigh Ann Purpura-Jordan, Tony’s oldest daughter.

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Aug. 7, 1994

The Post-Journal

AKRON, Ohio — Kristina Damond literally rode her way into the history books Saturday afternoon.

And she placed Jamestown on the International Soap Box Derby map in the process.

For the 12-year-old became the first Jamestown Area Soap Box Derby champion to win a national title as she finished first in the Stock Car division in Saturday’s All-American Soap Box Derby.

Competing in a field of 102 boys and girls, Damond drove her car, sponsored by Williams Garage & Wrecker of Jamestown, to victory.

Running in heat 255, her fourth race of the day, Damond registered a winning time of 29.42 seconds, edging Christina Ebner of Salem, Oregon and Aaron Hoffman of the Western Nebraska region. For her efforts, Damond earned a $2,500 college scholarship.

“Every time I think about it, I get chills,” Damond said upon her return to Jamestown.

Damond qualified for the All-American race by virtue of her victory in the Jamestown Area Soap Box Derby in June. Her title two months ago was just the second for a girl in the 10-year history of the local race.

“That was a mind-blower,” Purpura said. “It was very emotional. … Kristina came up and gave me the biggest hug. That was amazing.”

But it got even more amazing a year later.

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Aug. 6, 1995

The Associated Press

AKRON, Ohio — For the second year in a row, Jamestown has a Soap Box Derby champion.

Karen Thomas, 11, battled a steady rain and two other female finalists to claim the Stock Division title, finishing in a time of 29.18 seconds at the 58th All-American Soap Box Derby.

“The rain wasn’t really a problem, because everybody had the same thing,” Thomas said. “I think the times were a little slower because of it, but I don’t care about my time. I’m just really happy that I won.”

Thomas won an all-girls final heat by edging runner-up Megan Densford of Denver and third-place Katie Maines of Anderson, Indiana.

“You work so hard for something and you never get there,” Purpura said of the first 10 years, “and then you win back to back and you become famous.”

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