Maybe it’s a uniquely American experience but just hearing the words “soap box derby” seems to have a soothing effect on me. It conjures up images of families in the Heartland way back in the 1950’s when they all seemed like clones straight out of Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best. In my mind's eye, I can picture freckle faced boys with a gap toothed smiles waiting all week for Dad to get home from work and then on Saturdays, spending the better part of the day locked in the garage or the basement with hammers, nail, saws and smell of wood and rubber to keep them company. Right about noon or so, Mom would come wandering out to their workplace with a pitcher of fresh lemonade and sandwiches to help feed their bellies and steel their resolve as they tried to construct the fastest soap box car in the neighborhood, if not the entire country. Often the process would take weeks or months before they were ready to compete and they viewed their vehicle with about as much pride as the engineers who later would build the Apollo rockets and the Space Shuttle.
Before you get around to it, I’m well aware that the scene that I just described would be considered sexist in this day and age of politically correct jargon and nomenclature but there’s no denying this is what went on in countless homes from all across the land. For you males of the species out there who, for whatever reason, didn’t have a close relationship with their father, sorry about your luck. I’d count myself in with you and to me, it sounds awfully idyllic.
A Bit of History
The year is 1933, the setting is Dayton, Ohio. America is fresh on the heels of The Great Depression and anxious for any form of cheap entertainment. A newspaperman and his photographer are out on the streets in search of a good story when they encounter three kids racing home made engineless cars down one of the local hills. Intrigued by the whole scene, they snap their photos and write some copy and ask the kids to come back next week with some of their friends. Sure as God don’t make little green apples and it don’t rain in Indianapolis in the summertime, another twenty or so kids showed up the next to show off their wares and enter into the competition. Little did they know at the time, but their little friendly races would soon attract national attention and the day of the Soap Box Derby had arrived.
With some savvy marketing and the promise of cash prizes to the winners, it wasn’t long before fathers and sons combined their know how and efforts to come up with the fastest cars possible allowed by the rules. The next year, the crowd that gathered to watch the races was estimated of upwards of forty thousand and proved a boon to the local economy.
Alas, if you’ve ever been to Dayton, you’ll know that the terrain itself is pretty flat and that at the time, there was little local corporate sponsorship available. It was not long afterwards that the competition was moved to its present home of Akron, Ohio where land was more hilly and where sponsors such as Goodyear Tire and Rubber, BF Goodrich and Firestone called home. It wasn’t long after that the reports of the race were published in magazines such as Boy’s Life, Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. Chevrolet, sensing a good thing in the making, soon became the official sponsor and ponied up a $2000 college scholarship to the winners.
Originally, the contest was more like a hell on wheels and contraptions of all sizes, shapes and configurations were entered. It wasn’t long before accusations of cheating were being bantered about and with them came the call for strict regulations governing exactly what went in to a derby car. In the first go ‘round, the vehicles could not exceed two hundred and fifty pounds, had to be three feet or under in height and their width could not be wider than forty two inches. The wheels could be made of just about anything but could not be wider than twenty inches in diameter. Oh yeah, for good measure, they thought it would be a good idea to makes brakes a requirement.
I’ll be spare you the year by year, blow by blow account of the growing popularity of soap box derby racing across America during the 30’s 40’s and 50’s. Suffice to say that regional competition from across hundreds of cities in America all sent their winner to Akron in July. The event even went international and qualifying heats and completions were soon spreading around the globe. The event, now known as the “All American Soap Box Derby” had officially arrived.
Needless to say that over the years, as both we and technology evolved certain changes were in order. Girls, previously only allowed as spectators or helpers, were “allowed” to start driving their makeshift races cars down the hill in 1971. Coincidentally, Chevrolet now under the reign of one John Z. DeLorean withdrew its sponsorship the following year and the event was taken over by the Akron Chamber of Commerce. Predictably, with no huge prize money or scholarships at stake, participation dropped off to an all time low. In 1975 a local Akron company by the name of Novar Electronics came to the rescue and saved the day by taking over sponsorship and upping the prize money. That was also the same year that a girl by the name of Karen Stead was first across the finish line.
In a further effort to standardize the construction of cars and to eliminate some unsavory characters from cheating (some folks were using magnets under the body of the car to make it go faster), “kits” were now being offered to make construction easier and to make the races themselves fairier.
I was never good with my hands. I often claimed that the only tools that I can use with any degree of comfort are a knife, a fork and a spoon. My dad didn’t spend hours upon hours in the dank basement going over blueprints and making adjustments. That doesn’t make him a bad guy, it just wasn’t in him. I envy the boys and girls of today who might spend some time with either their moms or dads dreaming of crossing the finish line first.
That, to me, is what’s known as quality time…
Oh yeah, were the original cars really made out of soapboxes? Nobody seems to know for sure but I’m thinking there had to be at least one or two of them thrown into the mix in order for the name to stick, Hey, at least they weren’t made out of those God awful black and white cow looking cardboard boxes popularized by Gateway.