BATAVIA — It’s been 62 years since Roger Martin won the soap opera derby in Batavia, in a mean, lean machine he built from scratch.
His grandstand, -9 and with The Daily News painted in letters on the side, would have easily won Saturday’s Batavia Business Improvement District Suozzi Memorial Boxcar Derby, as was seen when his son, David, climbed in and took a test drive. down Ellicott Ave.
“It’s great that they’ve gotten this back up and running,” said Martin, now 95 and still living in the North Lyon Street home he built in 1950. “It’s nice to get the kids involved.”
Martin stayed near the starting line all morning, watching the kids pile into their trucks and speed down Ellicott.
He recalled racing in 1938, 1939 and 1940, when he was 13 years old and won, earning a trip to the national meet in Akron, Ohio.
“I was eliminated in the first moto,” he said. “They had some fast cars.”
His car was later donated to the Holland Land Office Museum, where it was on display for years before David Martin retrieved it and stored it in his home, appropriately at the bottom of the hill on Ellicott Avenue.
Saturday’s event drew about 100 people and proved to be a popular idea for the IDB, which distributed 28 kits to families.
A total of 26 kids ended up running, none with a more vocal cheering section than Levi Bennett from Warsaw, whose sisters, brother, and cousin broke out in a chorus of “Come on, Levi!” whenever Levi was ready to run.
Levi, 9, had a stony look of determination on his face as he reached the semifinals in a whirlwind three-race run.
His competition in the final was 10-year-old Brett Doward, whose grandfather, Tom Kemp, is a racer at Genesee Speedway and other western New York tracks and helped Brett build his truck.
Retired County Manager Jay Gsell and retired Police Detective Rich Schauf grabbed Levi’s car and pushed it to the top of the steep ramp.
Levi ignored the cheers and focused forward.
Brett was just as determined and when the starter called for the race to begin, they both flew off the ramp and headed straight down the street.
After consultation, the race officials made a decision: Levi and Brett would race again.
This time Brett’s car, -28 like his grandfather’s cars, proved to be a bit faster and he was declared champion.
Levi walked over and the two shook hands.
Meanwhile, Dominic Darch won the other division of the race.
The rest of the runners took the loss in stride.
“I should have tightened the wheel,” Keegan Calmes, 12, said after a front wheel came off as soon as his car hit the pavement. “It’s okay.”
He and his dad, Justin, built the car together.
Isaiah Munroe helped his sons, Maxwell, 7, and Masyn, 7, work on their derby cars. “This is amazing,” he said. “I got a lot of go-kart parts and we had a lot of fun.”
Brett’s name will be added to a plaque at the IDB office, one that is dedicated to the Suozzi family of Batavia.
A 1998 Daily News supplement featured an article about the Kiwanis Club of Batavia. The article said that an annual grandstand derby was a major Kiwanis Club activity for many years, beginning in the 1940s.
“This was a big deal for the city,” said Don Lewis, a member of the Kiwanis Club at the time, in the 1998 article. “The last one was in 1979. I don’t know why they quit. Probably because no one wanted to preside over it.”
There was an account in the July 6, 1939 edition of The Daily News about a derby that would take place a couple of days later, on Saturday, July 8, 1939, on the hill off Ellicott Avenue.
“Miniature cars of every description were brought to Court Street at noon today, as members of the Kiwanis Club and dozens of other interested spectators gathered to inspect the machines that will take part in Saturday’s great ‘Soap Box Derby’ …
“Prizes will be awarded for various features on the miniature machines, which will be in competition on Saturday. Riders lined up at 12:30 today as proud owners smiled in anticipation of winning over some of the judges,” the article said. “A host of special prizes are awarded to each entrant, whether or not the youngsters place. The winner will receive a large trophy and a trip to Akron, O., where the finals will take place.”
Boxcar Derby Winners Overall results included: north Age Group 7-10: Brett Doward, First Place; Levi Bennett, second place; Jack Lawrence, third place.
north Age Group 11-13: Dominic Darch, first place; Luke Hemmer, second place; Keagan Calmes, third place.
north The most creative: Ceili Finn and Maylo Kemp
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