She just got it.
The first time Malena Shipley climbed into a Soapbox Derby car, it was obvious to the adults around her that she instinctively knew what to do to make that car go fast. She was just 7, but she somehow seemed to know how to handle the car.
That’s what Nancy Mooney saw. She was there that first day. Mooney’s the race director of the North Georgia Soapbox Derby, which holds its races in Dunwoody. Back five years ago, she was showing kids soapbox cars during Lemonade Days, Dunwoody’s annual hometown celebration, when Malena first got into a Soapbox car and piloted it down a hill.
Mooney’s been around Soapbox cars much of her life. Her dad raced them when he was a boy and she raced them when she was a girl. When she saw Malena get in the car, Mooney watched the young girl naturally get into a racing position.
“She definitely had a natural ability at 7 years old,” Mooney said. “She had a natural instinct to put her bottom back and lean her nose forward.”
Mooney recruited Malena as a driver and found her a car. A short time later, Malena won her first race.
Since then, Malena’s never stopped. The Brookhaven seventh-grader has been the North Georgia champion in each of the three different divisions of Soapbox racers, was a top rally point earner in the nation in the “stock” division last year, and has been to the national competitions in Akron, Ohio, five times to race against other top drivers, said her dad, John Shipley.
Now, at age 12, Malena’s a world champion. In July, Malena took first place in the local masters division of the All-American Soapbox Derby. Her black-and-yellow-striped car will be displayed in a derby museum alongside all the other winners’ cars from eight decades of competition.
How good is she? “On a scale of 1 to 10? She’s a 12,” Mooney said.
Malena’s dad, an art director, serves as his daughter’s pit crew. They travel together to competitions scattered from Florida to Virginia. Malena figures she races about once a month. Some of her best friends are now drivers in other cities or other states.
In a race, Malena has to work the track to find places her gravity-powered cars can gain speed. She’s not really sure how she knows where to go, she just goes. “We look for places to go downhill,” she said with a shy grin. “It’s like skiing. I don’t ski. I just know stuff about skiing.”
Through five years of racing, Malena’s learned her way around a Soapbox track. She’s taken tips from other drivers and watched closely as winners made their runs. “I’ve learned by trial and error and by watching people,” she said.
In a race, she said, things slow down. She tries to work out an imaginary line that offers the quickest run downhill and stick to that line. “When we’re going downhill, things are like in slow motion — and going fast, too,” she said.
Drivers of the masters-level Soapbox cars aren’t seated, but more or less lie down and peek through a narrow slot to see where they’re going.
“Can you see your competitors?” her dad asked.
“I don’t look at competitors because you tend to steer to where you look,” she said.
That would slow her down, of course. So, leave worrying about other drivers to the ones behind her. The point, after all, is to go as fast as possible.
Malena likes that. “I like the way it feels to go downhill,” Malena said. “I guess I just like going fast.”
“She’s a little edgy,” her dad said. “She’s likes things with a little challenge.”
What comes next? Malena already has a new car, painted black and yellow like her old one, and she’s started competing again regionally. She can race Soapbox cars through age 20.
But she doesn’t think she will. She’s turning her competitive nature to a different sort of sport. She wants to play basketball, to drive for baskets instead of finish lines. She plans to play in the WNBA someday.