The Liberty Gazette
March 1, 2016
Ely Air Lines
by Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Linda: Enter the Danville Public Library from the parking lot in the back, pass the check-out counter and take the stairs to the left, past the table topped with tomato and strawberry boxes neatly filled with paperback books for sale, past racks of videos and books on tape and the usual library shelves to discover the Indiana Room, full of hidden gems of Indiana history, not the least of which is Steven Smith, historian, and man of many accomplishments. In a recent trip back to the Hoosier state, my niece’s homework brought us to meet Steve.
Growing up around auto racing, a smidgen south of Danville, in Mooresville, Indiana, young Steve wanted to enter the infamous Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio. Before making the big time in Akron (the Indy of soap box derbies), Steve would first test his skills at Wilbur Shaw Hill in Indianapolis - named for the winner of the first Indy 500.
He bought wood from the lumber company a mile away and carried it home, on his back, then built his racer without power tools, in the living room, because they had no garage or shed. While most dads were building their kids’ cars for them, totally “hands-off” for the kids, when Steven’s dad came to check on his progress, the Do-Not-Touch rule was aimed at Dad, while Steven worked diligently on his first downhill racer.
“The brakes didn’t work, the steering wheel was too low, and about lunch time the tech inspectors asked if I wanted to go through inspection,” Steven recollects. “Because I had worked so hard for it, the two men stood patiently by until I finally finished at 11:30 pm, doing the best I could to rebuild and fix the car I had tried to design like the fast Indy cars of the day - low to the ground. Turns out, it wasn't very aerodynamic for a soap box racer.”
He didn’t win the derby, but the lessons learned building his racer made that little participation trophy mean so much more than the ones he has won for speech contests and acting, and more than all the accolades for his radio announcing and ad agency work. You betya, in that little trophy is a story of epic, life-impacting proportions.
While serving as a preacher at the Salem Church of Christ, and part time auto race photographer and announcer, Steve crossed the super high banks of Salem Speedway to the infield where he aimed to get the best action shots. Track officials open the gate between races and let folks walk to and from the infield and grandstands. When there are no mishaps there are no yellow flags, and no breaks in the action, meaning no crossing the track to get back out, which can make a preacher late for an evening service.
Fortunately, Steve’s good friend Martin Kennedy started church for him, knowing he must be stuck in that infield.
Martin may not have ever built a race car or competed in the Soap Box Derby, but his career as a dentist has afforded him the opportunity to build an airplane called a LongEZ, and with access to dental material create a lovely necklace with a gold medallion of the airplane as a gift for his wife.
My mom tied it up neatly with a quip, “Building an airplane, like building a Soapbox Derby racer, can be a Long process and often isn’t EZ, but like winning souls for the Lord, it’s worth it.”