A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

From the top of the hill, where the race cars are waiting, the track looks steep. And scary. Bexley Fredrickson, 8, stands at the starting line with her cousin Hazel

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From the top of the hill, where the race cars are waiting, the track looks steep. And scary. Bexley Fredrickson, 8, stands at the starting line with her cousin Hazel

Soap Box Heroes

Kid in a car at the Soap Box Derby

From the top of the hill, where the race cars are waiting, the track looks steep. And scary. Bexley Fredrickson, 8, stands at the starting line with her cousin Hazel Palmer, staring down the asphalt slope. Bexley’s stomach hurts. She can’t even finish her Bojangles biscuit. “They wanted me to do this last year,” she tells her cousin. “But I made them wait until you could do it with me.”

Hazel just turned 7. Finally old enough to race! She can’t wait to fly down that road. “Everyone’s going to be so surprised when we beat them,” she says.

It’s a muggy Saturday morning in May. In the distance, thick clouds blanket the Blue Ridge Mountains. Dozens of families stream into the Burke County Fairgrounds, park in the tall grass, hug old friends. Morganton’s annual Soap Box Derby won’t start for more than an hour, but people from across the state are arriving early to set up tents and tailgate.

Tommy and Marylin Waters and their granddaughters Bexley Fredrickson and Hazel Palmer and their racecars.

Soap Box Derby is a family affair for Tommy and Marylin Waters and their granddaughters Bexley Fredrickson (in blue) and Hazel Palmer (in red). photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

Bexley and Hazel know most of them. The girls grew up at the track, where their moms once raced and their grandparents run the show. Their Aunt Ashley started the whole family obsession. Bexley and Hazel have been here since dawn, in their matching red race shirts, their blonde hair pulled into ponytails. While the grown-ups set out cones, string cameras, and weigh cars, the cousins chase each other around the fields.

Soon, they’ll climb into the new orange racers that their grandfather, whom they call Papa, built for them and drive in their first derby.

Hazel hopes to take home a trophy.

Bexley doesn’t care about racing. She just wants to win the snowflake blanket that she saw on the raffle table.

“I want everybody over here,” calls Marylin Waters, the race director and the girls’ grandmother, whom they call Oma. “Does everybody have a helmet?”

Bexley Fredrickson drives her derby car down the track at the Soap Box Derby

The intensity that drivers bring to the races can be seen in the eyes of children like 8-year-old Bexley Fredrickson. photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

On the blacktop beside the exhibit hall, 26 cars are lined up. Drivers ages 7 to 20 will race each other, two at a time. They run to sit beside their sleek racers, decorated with flames, lightning bolts, flying comets. Bexley had asked her grandmother to make a sunflower for her car. Hazel’s has a leaping unicorn. Both cars sport decals: In memory of Ashley.

“Look up here,” their grandmother says, as she tries to take a group picture.

Bexley looks at her cousin, her eyes open wide.

Hazel, grinning, pumps her left fist in the air.

• • •

By 8:30 a.m., scores of people line the track. They mill among folding chairs, catching up with friends. Some raced against each other decades ago. Many watched each other’s kids race, grow up, and bring back their own kids to compete.

“All right, who’s ready?” Marylin calls through a megaphone. She talks about sportsmanship, having good attitudes, helping each other. “Remember, there are no losers here today,” she tells the racers. “You’re all winners if you just go down that hill.”

Soap Box drivers line up at the starting line

Drivers like Mitchell Huffman head to the starting line with sights set on joining the more than 350 other kids competing in the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio. photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

The track is smooth and dark, with a yellow line down the center — 800 feet, longer than two football fields. At first, the slope is gradual. Then it drops suddenly before leveling out near the bottom, where orange cones and towers of tires are ready to catch runaway cars. Races last less than 30 seconds. Speeds can top 30 miles per hour.

“All right, let us pray,” Marylin calls. She thanks God for His blessings, for the drivers and their families, asks Him to keep the kids safe — and to hold off the rain.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” she says, “start your engines!” Of course, there aren’t any engines.

Drivers show their enthusiasm ahead of the race. photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

Two shiny, slender cars have their wheels locked into metal ramps at the starting line, ready to slide onto the track and let gravity do its thing. The drivers, gripping butterfly-shaped steering wheels and pressing brake pedals, get two turns to careen straight down the hill. Whoever passes the camera timer at the finish line first wins that race. Then officials average the times of the contestants’ two runs to determine who moves on. Slower drivers compete in consolation competitions.

“All right, racers,” shouts a man at the starting block. “Three, two, one! Off you go.” As he releases the cars from their chutes, the sun breaks from behind the clouds, casting a golden spotlight across the track.

• • •

Morganton straddles Interstate 40 between Winston-Salem and Asheville. It was the first town chartered in western North Carolina, in 1784, populated first by farmers, then furniture makers and textile mills. Today, it’s still mostly rural, with some 17,500 residents spread across 19 square miles.

Many, like Marylin and Tommy Waters, have lived here for generations. Their kids never left, wanting to raise their families here, too. The only time they travel is for Soap Box Derbies — which have taken them as far away as New Zealand.

The Optimist Club of Morganton hosted its first Soap Box Derby race in 1947. The races resumed in 1985 after a long hiatus. For years, Morganton’s was the only Soap Box race in North Carolina, but in 2023, a Kiwanis Club in Fayetteville hosted the first derby there in almost 50 years.

Marylin learned about Soap Box racing when a coworker told her that the Optimists needed kids to drive cars in an upcoming derby. It was 1993, and she was a single mom, working in a warehouse and raising three children.

Ashley McCurry, who died in an automobile crash in 2000, loved Soap Box Derby and made two trips to race in the world championship in Akron, Ohio. Photography courtesy of Marylin Waters

She signed up her oldest, who was 11: Ashley.

“Ashley won her first race, and the next year, she won everything,” Marylin said. “After that, we were hooked.”

Tragically, ironically, five years after Ashley won that Soap Box race, she died in a car wreck. It was in 2000, just after she had gotten her driver’s license. She ran off the road and flipped her vehicle. “It was just her time to go,” Marylin says.

At the funeral, Marylin reconnected with a man named Tommy Waters, the father of one of Ashley’s classmates. He owned a body shop in town. He offered to help however he could. Soon, the families were hanging out on weekends, grilling hot dogs, talking about racing. And Marylin and Tommy’s friendship became romantic. “He married into Soap Box,” she says.

In 2001, after the couple’s wedding, the Morganton Optimist Club built the Soap Box track at the fairgrounds, giving drivers a place to practice year-round. It became the blended family’s second home. Both of Tommy’s daughters, Mandi and Megan, started racing, along with Marylin’s son, “Bubba” Evitt, and younger daughter, “Baby” Evitt. The new track started a sportsmanship award in Ashley’s name.

Today, cars competing on the Morganton track sport decals celebrating Ashley’s short life. photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

For 28 years, Marylin’s been recruiting young drivers and local business sponsors, organizing parents and volunteers, drawing up race brackets, running wheel swaps.

“I love hearing the kids squeal as they fly down the hill, seeing whole families — generations of them — spending time together,” Marylin says. “It gives kids something to do outside instead of playing on their phones or on video games. It gives us all something to cheer for.”

Like competitive baseball and dance, Soap Box Derby demands an investment of parents’ money, time, and travel. And it fosters communities that often become families. “But unlike other sports,” Marylin says, “parents don’t sit in the bleachers or cheer from the audience. They’re right there with their kids, building the cars, checking the brakes, helping with their helmets.”

The family spent summers crisscrossing the country, running races in Iowa, Tennessee, and Michigan, racking up rally points — like in NASCAR — to accumulate enough to go to Akron for the world championship.

Christmas breaks took them to Florida, entering rally races and practicing where it was warm. Five adolescent kids, and often a friend, would pile into their Ford Excursion that trailered six Soap Box cars. For more than a decade, they spent 20 weeks a year on the road. “In our house, it was never, ‘Do you want to?’” says Mandi Palmer, Tommy’s oldest daughter and Hazel’s mom. “It was always, ‘We’re doing this. Come on!’”

Two racers speed across the track at the Morganton Soap Box Derby

Since the first race in Dayton, Ohio, in 1934, Soap Box Derby hasn’t changed much. The cars may be flashier, but it’s still two kids, a stretch of pavement, and the pull of gravity. photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

The kids raced until they won their division or turned 20 and aged out. When grandkids started coming, their parents brought them to the fairgrounds, and set their strollers by the track.

Hazel was a month old when she saw her first race; she was hanging in a sling on her mom, wearing a onesie that said, “I Love Soap Box!”

In their basement, Marylin and Tommy have 17 stock cars. Including Ashley’s.

There are three classes of Soap Box cars built for different age groups. It costs about $1,000 to build one from a kit.

As Bexley and Hazel got older, their grandfather set them in racers to get used to the seat. He showed them how to brake, and how to duck down to avoid the wind. Look straight ahead. Don’t fight your car. Whatever you do, don’t let go of the steering wheel.

Bexley didn’t want to go down the hill. She doesn’t like feeling out of control.

Hazel, fierce and fearless, wants to be fastest.

In February 2023, as soon as Hazel turned 7, Tommy began taking his granddaughters to the fairgrounds on Sundays after church. He started them in practice cars, a few feet from the bottom of the track — in case they crashed. Each week, he moved the girls farther up the hill.

• • •

At the race, Hazel is up first. Her grandfather helps her pull on gloves, buckle her bike helmet. “You got this,” he tells her, clasping her shoulder.

Nodding, Hazel climbs into the racer and puts on her game face.

“Just stay straight,” her grandmother cautions. “Don’t look at the other driver.”

Both girls’ moms are at the start, too. Neither remembers being afraid when they raced. But now that their daughters are careening down the track, “it’s terrifying,” says Bexley’s mom, Megan Yancey.

At first, Hazel coasts ahead, focused. But she forgets to scrunch down. The wind whips her face. Her competition whizzes past her across the finish.

“Good job!” Bexley cries as her cousin comes back up the hill. “You didn’t crash!”

Hazel laughs. “Hey, that was fun!”

When it’s Bexley’s turn, she balks. “Come on,” her grandfather coaxes. “Why are you so worried?”

Her grandmother snaps the helmet under Bexley’s chin. “We haven’t ever had any hard wrecks here,” she says.

Bexley doesn’t seem soothed. She lowers herself into the driver’s seat, looking terrified. “Make sure you brake,” her grandmother says.

Megan Yancey talks to her daughter Bexley Fredrickson ahead of her Soap Box Derby race

Megan Yancey gives her daughter, Bexley Fredrickson, a pep talk before the 8-year-old’s Soap Box Derby race at the Burke County Fairgrounds. photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

First out of the gate, Bexley slips in front of the car beside her, holds the lead until they drop down the hill and out of sight. When they roll back into view near the bottom, Bexley suddenly veers to the left, which distracts her enough that she forgets to brake. She blows past a hay bale and through the orange cones, crashing into the tower of tires.

Panicked, her mom calls her sister, who’s at the finish line. “Is she OK?” Bexley isn’t getting out of the car. Through the phone, Bexley’s mom can hear her daughter crying. Bexley’s aunt laughs. “She isn’t hurt. She’s just dramatic.”

A family friend bribes Bexley with $10 to wipe her tears and get back in the driver’s seat.

By 4 p.m., clouds again shadow the valley. The cars are back in their trailers. Everyone is tired, sweaty, sunburned.

Marylin calls each driver to get an award — even Bexley and Hazel, who lost all of their races.

“I’m very proud of you both,” their grandfather tells them. “We’ve got lots of things to work on for next year.” Hazel hugs her trophy, admiring the spinning derby racer. At the raffle, when she wins the snowflake blanket, she gives it to Bexley.

“The last award is for sportsmanship,” Marylin tells the crowd. “It’s named for my daughter Ashley, who raced years ago and went to Akron twice. She’s no longer with us, but she loved the derby.” The award goes to Marley Shuping.

After the other families leave, Marylin and Tommy stay to pick up around the picnic area, clean the cars.

They aren’t sure how many more years they can keep this derby going. Each year, the driver pool dwindles. The Optimist Club is down to six members, but the Moose Lodge recently stepped up to help. And the Morganton club just bought cars from a Tennessee track that closed. Marylin and Tommy have plans to add derby cars for adults, and two-seaters so differently abled kids can ride.

But for now, they say, this is enough. Another day at the races, outside in the spring sunshine, surrounded by friends, all their grown kids together — somehow, even Ashley — cheering on the next generation as they roll down the hill.

Morganton Soap Box Derby, May 11
Burke County Fairgrounds
145 Bost Road
Morganton, NC 28655
(828) 443-0407

This story was published on Apr 16, 2024

Lane DeGregory

Lane DeGregory is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Tampa Bay Times. She spent her first decade as a reporter on the Outer Banks and comes “home” to North Carolina whenever she can. Lane has taught at universities and writing conferences around the world and won dozens of other national reporting awards. Her first book, The Girl in the Window and other True Tales, is an annotated anthology which the University of Chicago Press released in 2023.