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Build it, race it, win! Belknap student qualifies for International Soap Box Derby

On June 1, a local youth brought home first-place honors in the Rochester Soap Box Derby and now qualifies to compete in the International Soap Box Derby next month in Akron, Ohio.

Gunner Millis, 11, is a student at Emmet Belknap Intermediate School who is described as being “hands-on” as well as possessed of leadership skills. For the past two years he has been involved with the after-school and summer programs operated by Youth Mentoring Services.

According to Nina Frye, the programs can incorporate a lot of different topics, including science and math, as they develop traits such as resilience and team building in youths.

Every year Frye picks one team, a child and a mentor, to participate in the soap box derby, and this year she was certain she made the right choice.

“I’ve seen (Gunner) show leadership and problem solving skills, and because he’s so hands-on, I knew it was something that could help him,” she said.

Gunner’s mentor was his maternal grandfather, Willard Martucci, 59. They were connected to Karl Heilemann of the Nor-Ton Red Jacket Club, a group of volunteers whose mission is to help youths experience, appreciate and protect the outdoors.

In addition to supplying the soap boxes, the club paid the race registration fees and put up gas money for the pair to go to Rochester.

There is a twist. Although Variety, the children’s charity of Buffalo and Western New York, supplied three soap box derby vehicles in 2018 and teams have assembled them for competition, the Nor-Ton Red Jacket Club disassembles the soap boxes after each race. That way the next team has the unique experience of building something.

“We disassemble the parts, put them all back in the bag and keep them for the next team,” Heilemann said.

Martucci said his grandson did all the work and he was just “a guide” as Gunner read all the directions — no easy feat, said Heilemann — and put the vehicle together himself.

“It’s all about Gunner,” Martucci said, noting that he must have put it together right, because they won.

In a before-school interview this week, Gunner said the experience was exciting. In addition to winning derbies, he said he likes sports, especially soccer and lacrosse.

“When I first got here I didn’t think of it at all,” he said of winning the derby. “Then when I started to do a few more races, I started to think, ‘maybe I could win.’”

Gunner shared some strategic tips for getting as close to the outside of the track as possible and not tilting left or right, as that would slow you down. He said he went as fast as 27 mph.

Now Gunner is looking forward to the next competition and doesn’t seem worried.

“We’re going to change (the soap box) just a little bit, so that could help,” he said.