Goshen News, Goshen, IN

June 14, 2013

Goshen man looks back on soap box derby years


GOSHEN — For years, a sleek black soap box derby car has been on display at the Old Bag Factory in Goshen.

There’s no placard to tell its story. The name “Greg Koop” written in small script writing on the side of the car only hints at a past filled with fun, trial and error, hard work, challenges, competitions, wins, loses, fame and a movie.

Greg’s dad, Vic Koop of Goshen, recently shared that history. The elder Koop grew up in the Niagara Falls area of St. Catharines in Ontario. That’s where the derby bug bit.

“That’s the one city that had a huge soap box derby,” Vic Koop said. “I worked as a stock boy for a company that stored all the cars in their warehouse. I would walk through there and dream and think, ‘I could build one of these.’ But that never came to fruition.”

That would change.

The early years

Fast-forward to the late 1980s, when Vic went with his wife and three children to the Fort Wayne Zoo for a family outing.

“We looked at this track and I asked my middle daughter Lisa if she knew what it was for,” Koop said. “After I told her about the derby races, she jumped at the chance to try it.”

They went to the soap box derby nationals in Fort Wayne that year to see the racing and look at the cars close up.

“She didn’t know how excited I was that I would finally get the chance to build one,” Koop said.

Unlike today’s kit cars, the derby cars of past decades where made almost entirely by the owners. Only the wheels, axles and braking and steering mechanisms were purchased through the All American Soap Box Derby (AASBD) in Dayton, Ohio.

Of the three classes of derby cars — stock, super stock and masters — Koop chose to build a masters car, by far the fastest and most technically challenging of the cars.

“There were rules upon rules upon rules. You had to have some knowledge of aerodynamics and shifting potential energy to kinetic energy,” Koop said. “And I had never done fiberglass before. After going from one company to the next, I heard about one guy whose name has never been mentioned in all this — David Hartzler.”

Hartzler owns Crafters Inc, a manufacturing and industrial pattern company in Goshen. Koop went in to buy the chemicals, resins, glass and matting he needed to begin his project.

“He asked me where I was going to do this and I said in my garage,” Koop said. “He looked at me and asked me if I wanted to stay married!”

Then he offered Koop a place to work on his car, and let Koop use all of his equipment. Hartzler also offered his expertise.

For that, and for the three years he and his children spent there building five derby cars, Koop is forever grateful.

“Lisa got in that first car,” he remembered. “You lay down in the masters cars and you have maybe a 1/16 of an inch to see. And she said, ‘No way.’ So I opened it up a little and we headed off to the first race. We just did terrible.”

To make matters worse, the brakes didn’t work.

“They extemporaneously gave her an award at the end of the race for adding to the excitement of the day because the policemen at the finish line would grab bales (of straw) and throw them in front of the car to stop her,” Koop said.

Races where held on city streets, and the Koop family would regularly head to Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Ontario with the homemade car and trailer.    

“The early years were hilarious because we were learning, always learning,” Koop said. “But the challenges made me want to do it more.”

Getting more serious about the project, Koop contacted an aeronautical engineer in California who worked with Koop and would send him plans to exactly fit Lisa or her younger brother, Greg, who soon began racing in derbies.

“At that point our success rate took off, but now we were racing with the big boys,” Koop said.

Unfortunately, Koop and his family learned the derby business often had the same terrible underbelly that all sports have when parents get too involved. Parents who had invested so much time and money into the cars, Koop said, would scream at their children when they lost races. And the national news carried the story of one family that illegally used electromagnets to win two consecutive All-American derbies.

For Koop, though, far outweighing the darker aspects of derby racing are the family memories of laughter and fun. Two incidents stand out for him.

Favorite memories

“The nicest moment was when our oldest daughter Jennifer was setting up Lisa’s car on the ramp,” Koop said. “It’s really critical how you set the car. Here are these fathers helping their kids and then there was Jennifer. I got all misty-eyed sitting off in a lawn chair watching my two little daughters figuring out the perfect position for the car.”

Koop’s favorite race took place in Michigan, where Greg was driving the fastest car Koop had ever built.

“At that point, I had it all figured out,” Koop said. “We got to this race and here’s this nationally ranked Vlasic Pickle sponsored car. We won the first phase and they won the second. With the time differential, they won and we were put in the losers’ bracket.”

Koop consoled Greg, telling him he did a great job against a nationally ranked car. But Koop couldn’t stop thinking about what he could do to improve the car’s performance.

“I looked over and saw that they were weighing the cars and they were doing gross weight only,” Koop said. “I walked to the director and said, ‘Are you telling me that we can have a weight differential from front to back axle?’ He said ‘Yes.’”

What that meant was that Koop could put the car’s weights anywhere in the car he wanted. He moved them all to the back.

“We just started cleaning up — winning all the races,” Koop said.

At the end of the day the Koops raced their way out of the loser’s bracket and faced the Vlasic car again. Greg’s car won. The Vlasic team accused them of adding weight and the car was brought to the scales.

“I was pretty nervous, but we were dead on with the weight,” Koop said. “We won and have the trophy to show for it. It gives me great joy to chomp on a Vlasic pickle today.”

The movie

Years later, Koop became heavily involved in the Elkhart County Soap Box Derby. During that time he heard a Middlebury couple, Sheila and Myron Yoder, give a talk about what to do to keep children involved in mainstream activities.

The Yoders’ oldest boy Seth was heavily into athletics and their younger son Justin played T-Ball. However, Justin had spina bifida and found he couldn’t continue with that activity.

“I remember they were teary-eyed at the end and wanted to know if anyone had ideas how to keep Justin active,” Koop said. “I happened to cross paths with them in the parking lot afterwards and told them I thought I had something in my garage for Justin.”

The Yoders brought Justin to Koop’s house one afternoon not long after the invitation was extended.

“Justin was a bit of a ham and his parents were just perfect. Everything just came together,” Koop said. “I remember we just plopped him in the car and it just took off from there.”

The only snag in the plan was that Justin wasn’t able to use the foot brake.

“I contacted AASBD and asked if there was a possibility of altering the rules from a foot brake to a hand brake,” Koop said. “They flatly turned me down.”

But Koop was persistent and exasperated.

“Finally I just asked them if they had ever heard of the Americans With Disabilities Act,” Koop said. “It wasn’t long after that one of the board members called me and essentially said he could make it happen and that it was a great idea.”

The most satisfying part for Koop was getting all the emails and letters asking him to explain the “Justin Brake.”

As it turned out, Justin’s involvement and success in the derby would elevate him to celebrity status.

Joel Kauffmann and Don Yost wrote his story, and in 2000 it was made into the Disney movie “Miracle in Lane 2” starring Ricky Muniz.

“They flew us all out to Hollywood for the premiere showing,” Koop said. “Incidentally, Disney asked that the part about me be rewritten. They needed a villain. So I was made into a villain. They paid me $15 to use my name.”

In Koop’s view, the movie didn’t capture a lot of things about the actual experience. “In some ways the real story was almost more dramatic,” he said.

However, the movie is just one small part of Koop’s story. And so is the sleek black derby car that still hangs from the rafters in the Old Bag Factory.

“The real story is that my wife Irene and I have three wonderful kids with whom we had lots of fun,” he said.