CLAIM TO FAME
Jessica Little, 10, was the winner of the stock-car class of this year's Chattanooga Area Soap Box Derby. As the local champion, she represented Chattanooga at the All American Soap Box Derby national championship in Akron, Ohio.
• School: Fourth-grader at Bright School.
• Siblings: Brothers, Josh, 23, and Joe, 25.
• Hobbies: Basketball, tennis, lacrosse and soccer.
WANT TO RACE?
Chattanooga Area Soap Box Derby race director Michael Stewart said the event could always use more participants. Interested racers can contact join the email list by calling 423-596-7726 or emailing email@example.com.
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To most people, 29 seconds isn't a long time. It's the life span of a commercial or the pause at a traffic light during the morning commute.
But on July 21, for a little less than half a minute and a little over 950 feet, Jessica Little competed for national fame in the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio.
Earlier this year, Jessica, 10, beat out 20 racers in the stock-car class of the Chattanooga Area Soap Box Derby to earn the right to progress to the Akron finals. The road to getting there, however, was not as smooth as she might have wished.
Jessica was introduced to soap-box derby racing when she and her father, Mike Little, visited the O'Reilly World of Wheels at the Chattanooga Convention Center in 2010. When he saw an informational booth for the Chattanooga Area Soap Box Derby, something clicked, Little said
"I stopped in my tracks and said, 'This is what we are going to do,' " he said. "I was glad to see it. It's like a secret in this town."
In early 2011, he and Jessica visited the local track at Redoubt Soccer Association off Bonny Oaks Drive to take a few practice runs down the local track in one of the club's "corporate cars."
The Littles then purchased a kit for about $450 and spent several weekends getting it race-ready so Jessica could compete in the stock-car class of the local derby, which is held at Redoubt every May.
Although she didn't walk away a winner in her first event, Jessica said going 30 mph less than a foot off the ground was much different from other sports she had participated in, such as basketball, soccer and lacrosse.
"It was fun," she said. "I feel the wind and the vibrations, and when I'm going down, I always talk to myself for some reason ... saying things like 'Stay straight, stay straight.' "
Without a win at Redoubt, Jessica's only potential inroad to Akron was by earning rally points at sanctioned derbies all over the country.
She and a handful of other Chattanooga racers made trips to five races as far away as Atlanta and Owensboro and Bowling Green, Ky., but she still didn't earn enough points to gain entrance to the national finals.
On the comparatively fast track at Owensboro, Jessica also suffered a temporary setback when a competing car collided with hers, cracking the plastic shell and the axle. She and her father had to purchase a new kit -- white to replace her original green racer -- so she would be ready to compete this year.
The local derby is a double-elimination event. This May, Jessica advanced all the way to the top before suffering her first loss and dropping into the losers bracket. She then won three more races to beat out the largest stock-car field to compete at the event, according to race director Michael Stewart.
Stewart founded the local club and its nonprofit supporting arm in 2008. He said soap-box derby racing is as much about parents and children working together as it is the 30 seconds the cars are actually rolling down the hill.
"The reason I started it is because it's a great family activity and something where boys and girls can compete on an even playing field," he said. "The families put the car together and work on the car and participate in the races."
Jessica said she has enjoyed working with her father on the car, but the real thrill was going home with a trophy fully half as tall as she is after failing her first attempt.
"I was really happy because that's when I realized I was going to the world championships," she said. "It was a really good feeling [because] that was my goal."
At Akron, Jessica was one of 400 local champions to enter, some from as far away as Japan, New Zealand, Germany and Canada.
On July 21, she lined up between two other racers for a 29-second heat in the spotlight. She finished second, but since Akron is a single-elimination event, she was eliminated.
Even though she didn't walk away with a $5,000 scholarship and gold jacket, Jessica said she enjoyed the experience and is far from giving up.
"I know it's a memory I can always keep because not everyone gets to go to the Derby Downs," she said. "I'm happy to be one of them.
"[This year] I think I'm going to do super stock. I'd like to win at the local race again."
Contact Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @Phillips CTFP.