Nearly three years ago to the day, Christian Viering got his first cameo in the All-American Soap Box Derby, standing beside his mother, Lisa, at the Spring Hill Sports Complex in Green.
The two leaned against a fence among a crowd of extras for the filming of 25 Hill — a derby-inspired movie filmed partly in the Akron area.
After the filming that day, Christian sat in a derby car as the camera crew packed up. He didn’t need the wind whipping by or the sound of the tires sizzling across the pavement beneath him to know that he belonged in that car.
“I told my mom, ‘I really want to do this,’ ” Christian said of the cheap thrill, not knowing how costly racing a derby car can be.
Nearly half of the 430 racers gracing the hill this week have found at least one sponsor, chipping in about $500 on average.
The money helps pave the way to Derby Downs in Akron, where the world championship race will be held Saturday.
Those who lack financial backing must pay for themselves, said derby historian and longtime director Jeff Iula.
Count the Vierings of Fairlawn among the humble few who scraped together what they could to get to the top of Derby Downs, where Christian races Saturday as the coveted Akron Local champion. That designation, awarded after taking the local title, usually warrants at least a single sponsor.
“I’m just amazed that no one jumped at the chance to sponsor this kid,” said Tracy Douglas, a Lakemore precinct committeeman who loaned the Vierings a tent to stay dry under during the race and persuaded Ganley Automotive to donate a car hauler and van to get the stock car home after the race. “This is our kid. He’s our hero. We are the All-American Soap Box Derby.”
But there’s no 2-foot-long decal streaking down the side of Christian’s red stock car.
No sponsorship. No endorsement. And the money was sorely needed.
“People don’t realize how expensive the derby is,” said Lisa Viering, who added up the expenses in her head: $600 for the car and wheels, $25 to $45 to enter each of the required 20 rally races (some enter more than 30 rally races to earn enough points to compete in the championship) and countless more invested in tools and transportation.
Lisa hopes to find an enclosed trailer at a reasonable price. Douglas has pledged to help raise money for that trailer.
But for now, she loads her son’s 120-pound car in the back of a minivan equipped to transport the wheelchair of her father, who suffered a stroke and subsequent heart attack more than 25 years ago.
Lisa said she takes care of her father full time after being laid off from a national insurance company in 2005. Getting another job would actually cost her money after paying an estimated $200 a day in home care for her father.
“She’s a single mom and it’s a little tougher for her to get a sponsor,” said Iula, who added that he uses his derby connections to help as many deserving kids as possible find a sponsor.
Getting a sponsor in Akron, the home of the derby, should be easier than most towns, Iula added. “I think they just have to try a little harder.”
But Lisa Viering said she sent dozens of emails soliciting sponsorship from local restaurants, car washes and other businesses in the Akron area. “No one came through.”
She knew three years ago — when Christian asked to race a derby car — that a financial commitment on a limited budget would require an equally serious commitment from her son.
“I told him at the time, ‘this is going to be expensive,’ ” she told Christian.
“I’ll give up trumpet. I’ll give up whatever, just so I can race,” her boy said.
The Vierings have since thrived on the generosity of the derby.
‘‘We all try to help each other out. It’s a fair sport. We’ve made a lot of friends,” said Lee Gongaware, a fellow race parent who polished Christian’s car this year. The lettering along the side of Christian’s car, which reads ‘‘Akron Local Champ’’ where most cars have a colorful endorsement, was added by longtime derby volunteer Rick Acker, a grandfather in the derby.
Parts for Christian’s super stock car, which he hopes to put together in a few weeks, have been donated as well. And sage advice pours in from her newfound “derby family.”
The Copley eighth-grader has returned the favors whenever possible. He plans to again participate in the National Super Kids Classic, a race for children with disabilities held Friday. During the race, Christian and other champions will chauffeur others across the finish line at Derby Downs.
But Lisa Viering is most grateful for the promise her son kept: a promise to not take the opportunity lightly.
“He didn’t give up. He’s very diligent and he loves it,” she said.
“You have to be patient and you have to stay with it,” Christian said, noting the sacrifices he’s made along the way.
He’s given up football and trumpet, and an occasional soccer game that falls on race day.
It’s worth it, he says, looking down at his red stock car.
He remains mindful of the car’s balance in the short-lived offseason. He remembers which of his four wheels rolls fastest and which lane at every track gives an advantage.
“It’s just something you never want to forget,” he said.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.