Soap Box Derby racing grandma returns to competition following 3rd cancer fight

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INDIANAPOLIS — Competitors from around the nation descended on Indianapolis over the Labor Day weekend to compete in the NDR Nationals Soap Box Derby competition at Wilbur Shaw Memorial Hill on the city’s west side.

“110 racers from California to Florida,” said Indianapolis Soap Box Derby Director Bob Getts. “It’s been a phenomenal display here, of course bringing it to the home of racing.”

The three-day event also saw the return of the oldest soap box racer in history, 60-year old Debra Houston. Known as Indy’s “Soap Box Racing Grandma,” Houston took part in competition just three weeks after completing chemo therapy and radiation treatments as part of her third fight against cancer.

“It means that there’s hope,” Houston said. “It means that there’s drive. It means that anybody can accomplish anything.”

Houston has developed a big following since becoming known as the oldest soap box derby racer in history. She originally got into the sport as a way of getting her grandchildren involved and “off their phones.” In the process, she realized she was small enough to fit in a derby car and enjoyed racing herself.

Back in May, Houston was honored at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when she was given the opportunity to wave the green flag to start a day of practice. It was around that same time when she was diagnosed with lung cancer and preparing for another life-or-death bout.  

“It takes so much out of you,” Houston said. “It takes your spirit, it takes everything you think you have. There were so many mornings I got up, I was too weak to even go to a treatment, but I had to go.”

The last few months have seen many difficult days, Houston said. However, three weeks ago she competed the last of seven rounds of chemo therapy and 30 radiation treatments. About a week ago, she had the all-clear and the energy to get back in her soap box derby car and practice for this weekend’s competition.

“I feel like I can breathe better,” Houston said. “I feel like I can walk longer. Even in the car, I can tell the difference.”

Aside from feeling better physically, Houston says returning to soap box racing has helped to raise her spirit.

“Just coming out here and seeing all the people and seeing that they were happy to see me just gave me a whole lot more hope,” she said.

“She’s lifted like all our spirits, for sure,” said Indianapolis Soap Box Derby Director Bob Getts. “Debra is such an amazing person in general. She’s a big cheerleader for derby, and then we’re also a big cheerleader for her.”

Returning to competition this weekend meant the 60-year old was back to competing against racers less than a third of her age. Her oldest competitors this weekend were 16 years old.

“And I beat two of them,” she said.

While Houston still has more scans and tests over the next few months, she says her cancer is currently in remission. She has no plans to stop soap box derby racing any time soon.

“You’ve got to talk the talk and walk the walk,” she said. “If I’m going to tell other people, try to encourage them, I have to be encouraged myself. So that’s what keeps me going, and I’m going to keep going to the end. It’s a done deal for me.”

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