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Local soap box derby star zooms to Akron
PORT GAMBLE — Tommy Walters is fueled by lemonade and the need for speed.
At the ripe ol’ age of 10 and just 14 months after he first sat behind the wheel, the Silverdale native earned a ticket to compete in the 71st annual All-American Soap Box Derby World Championships at Derby Downs in Akron, Ohio July 21-26.
To secure his spot, Tommy had to be one of the region’s top three 8- to 13-year-old combined boys and girls rally drivers. The region consists of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. Tommy is ranked third with 176 points.
Rally drivers compete from August to May to accumulate enough points, which are based on race finish standings, to earn a trip to Akron.
On May 24 at a race in Salem, Ore., Tommy won it all, earning enough points to claim the region’s third slot.
“He knew he needed to place first to qualify,” said Tommy’s mother Katie Walters. “He put his mind to it and he just did it. Oh we were so excited.”
On that magical Salem Saturday Tommy was known as king of the hill, a derby title bestowed to racers who go undefeated.
When Tommy found out, he held a private fist-pump celebration in his car. He didn’t want the other driver to see. It was good sportsmanship, he said. Then he jumped out of his car and ran back up the race track hill to find his dad.
“I was really happy,” Tommy said. “All the people who raced knew I won and that I’m going to Akron and they all said “nice job” to me when I was going up the hill, and I was really happy.”
He then called his grandma, Sheila Walters, who saved the message with Tommy’s excited voice.
“Hi Gramma, I just wanted to tell you I’m going to Akron,” Tommy said on the message. “I got third place and no matter what I’m going.”
Soap box derby racing is a family affair for the Walters. Tommy and older brother Andrew, 13, race and little brother Ben, 4, is the cheerleader/mascot. Mom helps behind the scenes and dad, David, assists with coaching and car building. They refer to themselves as the “Wally Nation” team.
“It gives us something we can all do together as a family,” Katie said. “We’ve been hooked ever since.”
In March 2007, the Walters family learned the Silverdale Sunrise Rotary, the entity that hosted the county’s first Soap Box Derby race in recent memory, had more cars than drivers. A friend encouraged the family to give it a try.
They’ve now got the fever and the talent to match.
Tommy took second place in his very first race. Both brothers consistently place among the top eight at races. And they don’t really practice.
It’s hard to find space to practice, Katie said, so they use the parking lots at Klahowya Secondary School and Olympic High School before races.
“The most practice they get is actually racing down the hill,” she said. “The better they do the more experience they get.”
Without much “practice makes perfect” time, Tommy must think his way to racing perfection. He said his dad has a theory: Whenever Tommy thinks about winning the race, he wins it.
“What I’m thinking about is winning,” said Tommy, wearing a blue sixth annual Soap Box Derby 2008 T-shirt. “I think about steering because if you make one mistake it could mess up the whole race and you would loose.”
Tommy ordered his car, which arrived as a kit with instructions. After a few days and a little help from his dad and Andrew, the steering and brakes were assembled to the floor board.
The steering wheel was the hardest part.
“It has to be just right,” Tommy said.
Tommy’s nickname is “Wingnut” — his ears do stick out ever so slightly — and he can wiggle them. He also calls his car “Wingnut.”
When Tommy’s not pummeling the competition on the race track, his car is kept on sawhorses in the garage, “just in case we need to work on it,” he said.
“Wingnut” is very important to Tommy.
“Without it I couldn’t have won the race to go to Akron,” said the young man who races because he likes to go fast and make friends. “It’s a fun family sport so it joins the family together.”
The Sunrise Rotary is paying to ship the cars and provided Tommy with a stipend.
But to cover the family’s expenses, Tommy’s raising money too. In addition to being a talented driver, he’s now an entrepreneur and lemonade salesman.
Each weekend until he leaves for the Midwest, Tommy is slinging the summertime favorite and Rolos at his grandmother’s antique store in Port Gamble. He’s already brewed more than 30 gallons and made more than $500, enough to cover his airfare.
“My mom tells me how much it costs me for the whole day and when I’m done with the day I count my profits and pay my mom what I owe,” he said.
He works long shifts too, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Racers can earn a ticket to the World Champions by being a Rally Champion (based on season points) or a local race champion. Poulsbo is a Rally city and hosted a soap box derby race June 1. Tommy placed second at the race, and travels to Akron as a Rally Champion. In addition to Tommy, the Kitsap Soap Box Derby Association is sending four others to Akron; Rally Champions Malia Barber, 13, and Meghan Johnson, 12, of Bremerton, and local race champions; Hannah Welzbacker, 11, of Seabeck, and Jennifer Lovato, 14, of Poulsbo.