Passing the torch: Soap box derby is a way of life for one local family

Family members pose at the Gresko home in Henderson Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018. The family has four generations of Soap Box Derby champions, including 10-year-old Riley Gresko, back center, who recently finished third in the Stock Division in Akron, Ohio.
Photo: Steve Marcus

Soap Box Derby Tradition

Henderson’s Gresko family has been making the journey to Akron, Ohio, each summer for decades to compete in the All-American Soap Box Derby World Championship Race. Four generations of racers have competed there, including 10-year-old Riley, who took third in the stock division last month — her family’s best all-time finish.

While the races are competitive, they’re also friendly, with families from throughout the nation congregating for Akron’s annual soap box celebration. Friendships are common; competitors often help each other get their derby cars ready and share in a barbecue after the races.

As the announcer ran down this year’s participants, one name stood out to Riley’s dad, Jeremy Gresko — a racer with the last name Hayes. When the Greskos got back to Nevada, Jeremy found an old newspaper clipping from the 1930s in the family scrapbook. In it, his great uncle was competing next to a driver named Hayes.

“In some families, everyone plays football or soccer,” Jeremy Gresko said. “In our family, this is what we do.”

And they do it exceptionally well. McKayla Gardiner, Riley’s cousin, took ninth in the super stock division in Akron. Aubrey Gresko, 7, won the award for the best designed shell. More important, the family’s summer vacation — like all of its summers — was spent together, doing something about which the Greskos are passionate.

Jeremy’s dad, Jerry, hauls the cars and parts across the country in a trailer decorated with his grandchildren’s names and “Generation 4.”

“I’m proud because I was the first Gresko to win,” Riley said of her third-place finish, which awarded her a trophy that stood taller than the fifth-grader.

Riley’s finish wasn’t a one-person effort. Jeremy and Jerry take the lead on building the cars, which cost $450-$650 each and come in an easy-to-assemble kit. On race day, the family changes out the wheels between runs — each race has two heats, with finishes based on racers’ average time down the derby slope. Riley finished at 29.41 seconds on the 989-foot course, and her speed got up to 30 mph.

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The stock division is open to competitors up to 5 feet, 3 inches tall and 125 pounds, ages 7-13. The combined weight of the driver and car cannot exceed 200 pounds. Cars typically weigh about 70 pounds.

There’s plenty of strategy and coaching, such as reminding the driver of the basics: Sit toward the back of the vehicle and remain low; hold the steering wheel tight and do not move around. The Gresko brain trust also includes Stacia Gardiner, McKayla’s mom and Jeremy’s sister, who also won a trophy or two in her days competing.

The Greskos are hoping to get a few more families involved. Participation in Region 2 — which includes Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah — hasn’t been robust. And in Nevada, there are only a handful of competitors.

Jeremy and his wife, Melissa, head Las Vegas Soap Box Derby and spend most of their free time promoting the activity, including hosting a local regional each spring in the RC Willey parking lot. The Greskos have numerous cars in their garage for beginners to try out.

To join:

Las Vegas Soap Box Derby is looking for more participants. For details, email [email protected]

A racer needs 100 points to qualify to compete in Akron, with 40 points awarded to first-place finishers in the coed competition. The minimum age is 7; 20 is the maximum.

Riley might not be the last Gresko to thrive in the activity. Her younger brother, 4-year-old Preston, is already showing an interest in being in the garage while the cars are assembled.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.
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