Sixteen-year-old Joe Tomasello is the first to admit that soapbox derby racing is not a popular sport. In fact, Tomasello said many of his friends at Westlake High School did not even know he raced in derbies, and the ones who did usually lost interest quickly. That, of course, was before a two-page color photograph of Tomasello appeared in Sports Illustrated.
Ah, the wonders of a little publicity.
"We didn't even know about the picture," said Tomasello, who was photographed Aug. 7 at the 62nd Annual All-American Soapbox Derby in Akron, Ohio--where he placed third in the super stock division--and appeared in the Aug. 9 issue. "But everybody with a subscription got it before it came on the racks and they started calling us, telling us about it. Finally it came out on the shelf and I got to see it for the first time. That was very exciting."
On Thursday the Tomasellos received a framed copy of the photograph from Sports Illustrated, and they have already proudly mounted it on a wall at their home in Waldorf. Soapbox derby racing is, after all, a family event in the Tomasello house. Joe was introduced to racing when he was 8 years old, following in the footsteps of his father, Ken. His two younger sisters, Tara, 14, and Diana, 12, also race.
"When I first saw [the picture], all I could think was what a good picture it was," said Diana, who attends Mattawoman Middle School and was in Akron for the race.
But does she think of him as a local celebrity now?
"Not to me. He's still just my brother."
The derby in Akron is the culmination of the spring/summer racing season. Competitors can qualify to participate in the world championships either by winning their local event--there is a race held on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C., that serves as the local race for this area--or by gaining the most points through the rally circuit. The rally circuit is a series of 10 races in the spring/summer and 16 races in the fall.
Joe Tomasello went to this year's race in Akron as the Mid-Atlantic rally champion, having fared better on the rally circuit than his competitors from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey. In 1992 he went to the finals as the local stock champion.
"The race in Akron is the finals," Tomasello explained. "Once there you compete in either the race for local champions or rally champions, and in one of three categories: stock, super stock and masters."
The differences among the three divisions are relatively minor. All soapbox derby cars--none of which are motored--must be assembled by the child who is racing, though they may receive assistance from family members. Stock racers, ages 8 to 16, receive a kit to make their cars that includes the floorboard, a plastic shell and all the hardware required to assemble the car. Holes are pre-drilled, and a packet of directions is included. Super stock, for ages 9 to 16, comes with a bigger shell, shaped more like a watermelon than the square stock shell. In the masters division, ages 11 to 16, kits may be ordered or the car can be built from scratch.
Derbies are held on 1,000-foot-long straight tracks, many of which are main roads just blocked off for the event. The race starts on an incline and the surface levels off toward the finish line. Aerodynamics and driving skills play a big role, as some cars reach speeds of up to 30 mph.
Tomasello has raced in all three divisions, and actually appeared in Sports Illustrated for Kids in 1992 with his stock car in Akron.
"That was a much, much smaller picture, though," Tomasello said. "Not many people saw it. But this year's picture, it seems like everyone has seen it this time."