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by Michael Leonard
Summer may be in full swing for most area children, but for some, there's serious business to attend to this week in Akron.
The 77th annual FirstEnergy All-American Soap Box Derby is scheduled to take place July 26 at Derby Downs in Akron, with the first set to begin at 8 a.m.
The International Soap Box Inc., the non-profit group which runs the derby, expects nearly 500 racers to attend this year.
Racers are expected to come from 31 different states, as well as Canada, New Zealand, Germany and Japan.
Closer to home, northern Summit and Portage counties have a long tradition of racing at the All-American Soap Box Derby and this year will be no different. Four racers from the Record Publishing Co. coverage area are scheduled to hit the hill July 26 at Derby Downs.
This year's lone Local Champion to qualify is Tallmadge resident Cailey Bozic. Bozic, 13, earned her way to the world championships by winning the super stock division at the Akron Metro Soap Box Derby June 1 at Derby Downs.
The other three area racers heading the Derby Downs will compete as Rally Champions.
Rally Champions are those racers who travel to different soap box derbies around the country to accumulate points. Earning 180 points earns an automatic trip to the Soap Box Derby.
This year's rally champions include: Streetsboro resident Tyler Fleming, 16, in the rally masters division; and Tallmadge residents Makayla Herrle, 9, and Dylan Theisen, 12, in the rally stock division.
Fleming is the lone area racer making a return, as he competed in the local masters division last year at Derby Downs. He returns with his racer named the "Green Monster" and grandfather Martin Fleming as his car handler.
"His size is an optical illusion as he gets into his car," Martin Fleming said of his grandson. "Spectators say he looks like the Hulk when he explodes from his car at the end of the track."
Bozic is no rookie racer either, having raced soap box cars for five years. However, this will be her first trip to the All-American Soap Box Derby.
"I'm really excited," Bozic said. "I worked really hard this year to be able to go. Last year, I didn't rally as much. This year, I was more determined and focused on racing."
Like so many others, soap box racing is a family affair for the Bozics. Cailey's older sister Cassidy is a race veteran and grandfather Joe Bozic is her car handler.
"It's a lot of fun," Cailey said of her grandfather. "I've always kind of worked with him on things. He's in the construction business. Finding something we can do together is really great."
In fact, Herrle is Bozic's cousin and she also will make her first trip to the derby with Joe Bozic serving as her car handler.
Alicia Herrle, Makayla's mother, said her daughter is in her first year of racing and needed a bit of good fortune to reach the big race.
"We actually were a little bit nervous that she wouldn't be able to go," Herrle said. "They take 10 rally racers from our region [Ohio and West Virginia] and she was No. 15.We had to have five people above her on the list to win their local races. Luckily, that happened."
A former racer herself, Alicia Herrle said it has been fun to see her daughter race, noting she's improved dramatically in her first year.
"Her first rally race was in Lancaster and I couldn't go, so my parents took her down," Herrle said. "They told me she ping-ponged off all the barriers in her first race. By her second race, she knew what to do."
Theisen also will make his first trip to the Soap Box Derby in his first full year of rally racing.
Steve Theisen, Dylan's father, said his son got his start in the racing through the STEM program at Tallmadge Middle School. Borrowing the school's racer, he competed in last year's Akron local race and placed fifth in the stock division.
"When he had to give the car back, he told me 'Dad, build me a car,'" Steve Theisen said. "It's pretty amazing. I didn't expect to accomplish this in just one year."
"I was travelling all over to get the points I needed to get the big race," Dylan Theisen said. "It's taken a lot of hard work and dedication. It's really exciting. It's going to be awesome."
Dylan Theisen was quick to thank Cailey and Joe Bozic for helping him fine tune his racer.
Although he notes his son is "super excited" for the big race, Steve Theisen said Dylan is "pretty even keeled" and has no doubt who will be suffering worse race jitters.
"I'll be way more nervous than he is when we're in the gate," Steve Theisen said.
Dylan Theisen disputes that.
"I'm pretty nervous," he said. "It's the Super Bowl for kids basically. To win my first heat would awesome. Winning it all would be a dream come true."