Like most teenage boys, Johnny Berg loves music and electronics of all types.
But every year, as summer nears, Johnny straps on a helmet and becomes a Super Kid.
Johnny is among the young competitors in the Greater Rochester Soap Box Derby who love getting in their cars every year and letting gravity speed them down the hill on Lakeshore Boulevard.
Tammi and John Berg decided to get their 17-year-old son involved in the derby’s Super Kids program in 2014.
“We tried it out, and he became the champion, and won one of the first trophies, the big trophies!” Tammi Berg said.
In the traditional derby, kids build and drive their own cars in races. In the Super Kids program, young people with special needs are paired with other kids who drive the two-person cars.
In both programs, winners in the timed races can qualify for the national competition in Akron, Ohio.
But Mike Turco, who directs the local Super Kids program, said the experience goes beyond what happens on the track.
“It’s not only a great experience for our kids,” Turco said, “but it’s a great experience for the other kids to know children that have special needs and realize there’s nothing to be afraid of. You know, they’re just kids.”
Turco found out about the program from a co-worker who knew Turco has a son, Nick, with special needs.
“It was back in 2006 or 2005, it was the first year we got involved,” Turco said. “And he just loved it.
“Nick is a great guy, but he hates things on his head, and this is how much I knew he really wanted to do it because in order to race, you have to wear a bike helmet on your head.
"So I told him, ‘Nick, if you want to do this, you gotta put the helmet on your head and get in the car.’ And he did. And that was all she wrote.”
John Berg said the Super Kids program means a lot to his son.
“Every year, he looks forward to going to race with the other kids and being out there, in the public, with typical kids, and with his friends, too, because there are other kids with special needs that do participate.”
Johnny describes the racing as “awesome,” and names several friends he’s made through the program.
Johnny’s grandmother, Elaine Labbate, loves watching him compete.
“It means a lot to me to see him participate with all the other kids,” Labbate said. “And he does a great job. And he loves it. And we like cheering him on.
“So, it fills my heart, you know? I just love him.”
The races truly are a family affair, Tammi Berg said.
“We all go to the race, usually in June, and we cheer him on,” she said. “And for practice, my daughter actually drove my son, and it was a lot of fun.
“Right?” she asked Brianne.
“It’s like a rush,” said Brianne, 14. “At first you’re like, ‘Oh, this isn’t too bad,’ but then it starts going fast and you’re like, ‘This is really fun.’ ”
Johnny and Brianne teamed up again on Race Day during Johnny’s second trip down the hill and rode to victory.
With that win — and another one earlier in the day — Johnny qualified to once again compete in the national competition. The race in Akron is on July 21.
Turco said going to nationals is a great experience.
“We’re in a room of 70-some-odd other families that are in the same boat that we’re in and understand our daily struggles, but at the same time, all of the joy that is being involved by the program. I just think it’s fantastic.”
Others involved in the Super Kids program agree that it’s something special. Christine Riesenberger has two children, Emily and Andrew, in the program.
“I just love seeing the excitement in their face,” Riesenberger said. “And the very first time they did it, they didn’t know what to expect, and they were just laughing the whole time, and that just warmed my heart that they found something that they truly enjoyed and it’s just very different from anything they’ve ever experienced before.
“So it’s so nice to have that opportunity for them to participate in something that typical kids participate in.”
She said the program is very organized and well-run.
“It just seems like everywhere you look, everybody’s happy and just glad to be here, and all the kids are just really excited to be participating,” Riesenberger said.
Trinity Schabel has been racing in the traditional program for several years, and in recent years, she’s been a driver in the Super Kids program.
“It’s been really fun,” Schabel said. “It’s super cool to interact with the kids … it’s just so fun to see the look of joy on their face and see how excited they are, like up close, and it’s kind of a privilege to be able to see that and to help them with that.”
Turco would like to involve more kids in the local program, but he and Mark Scuderi, director of the Greater Rochester Soap Box Derby, need something big to make that a little easier.
“We really need our own, like a permanent hill, for soap box derby racing,” Turco said.
Right now, he said, there are several locations around town where they have to close the road to allow for races.
“But if we had our own hill, then we could definitely have the Super Kids race more,” Turco said.
Until that happens, Turco has worked to get the Super Kids involved in all the rally events, so they have more opportunities to race.
John Berg said his family is trying to raise awareness of the program so even more Super Kids can enjoy the thrill of racing and the joy of camaraderie.
“It’s just a way to get them all together and have fun and just be out in the public,” John Berg said. “It helps bring awareness to other people that there are kids out there with special needs who just want to be accepted and part of the group and part of a team.
“He looks forward to it every year. We do, too, because it just brings everybody together.”
For more information about the Super Kids program, call Turco at (585) 455-4700.
This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk.