AKRON -- After years of financial troubles, the Akron-based All-American Soap Box Derby is on track to break even this year and then start making money, and its new leader hopes to continue the turnaround by building income from racing and educational programs.
The nonprofit derby lost corporate sponsorship and was sued in 2009 by a bank seeking payment on $580,000 in loans, but the city then guaranteed the loans, and the derby has benefited from increased interest in gravity-powered racing in the area and fundraising by a local commerce group, the Akron Beacon Journal reported Saturday.
The derby, which had often been operating in the red, has stayed current on the loans and appears poised to make a small profit in the tax return it files next month, the newspaper said.
"Three years from now, people will look back and marvel at the changes," said Derby President Joe Mazur, the former manager of Cleveland State's Wolstein Center, who joined the organization four months ago. "We're holding our own."
The derby's financial troubles inspired actor Corbin Bernsen to make a film about a soap box derby racer. It was scheduled to debut Saturday in Akron and has generated $150,000 for the derby, which is a 10-percent owner in the film.
Mazur remains optimistic about finding a national title sponsor by year's end, a task that's been challenging amid economic troubles since the denim company Levi Strauss Signature bowed out in 2007.
The 74th derby week begins July 18, and 509 racers are expected to gather for the national championship.
Eleven more who qualified aren't making the trip to Akron because it's too expensive, Mazur said. The total of 520 local and rally champions is down from 599 in 2009 and 540 last year, but Mazur is hoping his plans to boost income will also build interest and increase those ranks.
He's increasing efforts to sell derby kit cars to schools that can use them for science and math lessons, and he found a supplier to replace one that backed out of producing master's kits for more experienced racers.
That could aid product sales, which typically provide one-third of the derby's income.
Mazur also sees a possible income source in the practice of selling the rights to name valuable real estate, such as the Derby Downs' asphalt hill adored by racers.
"I see this as an opportunity," Mazur said. "Why not have people talking about coming to the Blank Hill or whatever?"
Next year, he's aiming to boost interest further by making derby week part of a "gravity festival" to include skateboarding and off-road bicycling.
The Associated Press