CAMANO ISLAND — Ronan and Richard Johnson drove home from Omaha, Nebraska, towing a trailer with a Seahawks-styled soap box derby car and a gold trophy taller than Ronan.
The 15-year-old took first place in the masters class at the National Derby Rallies Championships June 11. The Johnson family is headed to Akron, Ohio, in July for the All-American Soap Box Derby, which draws people from all over the world. Ronan and his sister Willa, 18, plan to compete. It’s Ronan’s fourth time going to Akron and Willa’s fifth.
The races are family activities that have engrossed the Johnsons for eight years, since they watched their first one at the Stanwood-Camano Soap Box Derby. Ronan was 8 when he started racing and 12 when he started competing at the national level. He’s previously taken sixth place in Akron’s worldwide competition, but this year is his first national championship. And while there are a number of champions from the Midwest and from Oregon, where Salem has a derby track that draws competitors, it’s rare for a Washingtonian to take the crown.
Soap box derby is a sport where competitors ages 7 to 20 build cars with help from mentors, often parents and grandparents. The cars are not motorized, but rather rely on gravity to race downhill. Racers build from kits and, in the case of the Stanwood-Camano derby, many of those are sponsored by local businesses and organizations to make sure children are not barred from participating by cost. A dedicated derby track is in the works on Camano Island, a unique feature that volunteers hope could increase interest in the sport.
Richard Johnson hopes his son’s victory at the national competition will be “a shot in the arm” for the local program.
Over the course of two days, Ronan did 18 runs down the hill in Omaha. He lost his first match, putting him in what’s called the challenger bracket. He’s been there many times, he said. The key is not to get downhearted.
“You can fight your way back and win the whole thing, which is exactly what he did,” his dad said.
Ronan listened to rap music as he got ready for the races, relying on the beat to pump him up. He sized up his competition. He knew the matches would be tough. Conditions were less than ideal, with temperatures reaching 98 degrees and winds up to 40 mph. He and his dad focused on doing what they’ve practiced time and time again.
“I’m pretty good at scoping out the track and putting it right on the line,” Ronan said.
There were more than 100 racers, and eight made it to the finals for the masters class, most of them older than Ronan.
In the final race of the day, he was pitted against a three-time national champion. At the bottom of the hill, he thought he’d crossed the line first but wasn’t sure. Then he heard his name over the loudspeaker.
“It came as a shock,” he said. “But I also was feeling pretty confident about it.”
His opponent congratulated him, which is the norm, he said. Derby stresses the importance of sportsmanship. The only times Richard Johnson can recall trash-talking is when Ronan and Willa are up against each other and sibling rivalry kicks in.
Willa just graduated from Stanwood High School, with an associates degree through Running Start at Skagit Valley College. She’s headed to Western Washington University.
Ronan is going into his sophomore year at Stanwood High, where he balances races and schoolwork with sports. He plays basketball, soccer and runs track. He plans to start cross-country this fall. He hopes to keep racing in derbies, as long as he doesn’t outgrow his car. For many teens, that’s why they have to step back from competition. For others, it can be the strain of many commitments.
“It is hard,” said Allison Johnson, Ronan’s mom. “You have to give up stuff. You have to give up sleepovers, soccer games.”
It’s worth it, Ronan said. He loves meeting new people. Often, the hardest part of a race comes after, when he has to leave friends. He tries to stay in touch with them via social media.
“It makes me motivated to win so I can go back and see them again,” he said.
When the Johnsons first put together derby cars, one for Ronan and one for Willa, it took several hundred hours, Richard said. Now, they take them apart and do tune-ups rather than building from scratch.
Inside their home on Camano, there are dozens of trophies from Ronan and Willa’s victories over the years. There’s a wind tunnel in the garage where they test cars, and two cars are on display inside. Richard Johnson jokes that a sure sign of an over-the-top derby family is cars in the dining room.
The hard work and passion have paid off, though.
“Ronan’s a really good driver, but I think it’s still kind of sinking in,” Allison Johnson said. “He won.”