Photo courtesy of the All-American Soap Box Derby
Soap Box Derby
A young racer tries out Old Number 7, the car driven by the winner of the first official Soap Box Derby in 1934.
The All-American Soap Box Derby is a nonprofit organization for youths and their families. Its racing season runs year-round in 43 states and seven countries, ending with the championship in July in Akron.
Building a Derby car gives parents and children time together without television or computers or any of the other modern-day distractions that can keep family members distant. It also helps kids learn physics, math, good sportsmanship, persistence and other valuable lessons that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.
The start of it all
In the depths of the Great Depression, when many families struggled to feed themselves, entertainment was either too rich of a luxury or simply impossible for most. Kids had to make their own fun, using whatever they could scrounge up.
On a summer day in the early 1930s, photographer Myron E. “Scottie” Scott, on assignment for the Dayton Daily News, watched as such a group of kids raced in homemade cars down a suburban Dayton hill. Scott was so taken with the event that he acquired a copyright for the idea and began development of a similar program on a national scale.
In 1934, more than 360 kids ages 6 to 16 showed up to race at Burkhardt Hill in Dayton with homemade cars built of wooden crates, baby-buggy wheels and sheet tin. No word on whether anyone actually raced in a soap box.
The 1935 event took on national stature complete with corporate sponsors as well as champions from 34 other cities. They all traveled to Dayton for the event. The champions were the toast of the town for three days, enjoying a whirlwind of parties, banquets and outings. Wild Bill Cummings, the Indy 500 winner, took part in the celebration, as did famous pilot Jimmy Mattern. Prizes included a trip to the World’s Fair in Chicago, scholarships, box cameras and radios as well as Babe Ruth bats and balls.
The enthusiasm in Dayton eventually reached the ears of Detroit automakers, and Chevrolet became the Derby’s sponsor in 1936. Chevy, with a bit of prodding from community leaders, decided to move the Derby to Akron. Although the official reason for the move was Akron’s hilly terrain, there’s no doubt that Akron—as the tire capital of the world—had strong ties to the Detroit automakers. Scott eventually landed a public relations job with Chevrolet and later named the Corvette.
Akron built a permanent site for the Derby thanks in part to the Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA), which was designed to put the unemployed to work and stimulate the economy. The chosen site was a Southeast Akron hill that kids had used for years to sled and race. Derby Downs has been renovated and expanded over the years, but the hill at its heart remains the star attraction.
Since 1936, the Soap Box Derby championship has been run in Akron every year but one. On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Derby became the first event in the nation to cancel itself in support of the U.S. entry into World War II.
At its peak, the Derby was one of the top five sporting events in the nation, drawing about 60,000 spectators annually. It was televised nationally and attended by some of the biggest celebrities of the various eras. Although the number of spectators has dropped, the race is still quite popular among kids. In 1975, about 100 racers took part in the championship; that number topped 600 in 2009.
The nuts and bolts
The All-American Derby youth program is administered by International Soap Box Derby, Inc., an Akron-based nonprofit corporation. The corporation is run by a board of directors that includes some of the Akron area’s top corporate leaders.
Local race programs are sponsored by a variety of civic clubs, service organizations and businesses across the country. These groups establish their local Derby administrative and promotional organizations to conduct the program.
There are three primary racing divisions in most of the local races as well as the All-American national championship. The Stock division is designed to give the first-time builder a learning experience. Boys and girls age 8 through 13 compete in simplified cars built from kits purchased from the Derby. These kits assist the Derby novice by providing a step-by-step layout for construction of a basic lean-forward style car. The Super Stock Car division, ages 10 through 17, gives the competitor an opportunity to expand his or her knowledge and build a more advanced model. Both of these beginner levels make use of kits and shells available from the Derby and are popular in race communities because they allow racers to ease into the sport.
The Masters division offers boys and girls age 10 through 17 an advanced class of racer, which allows them to use their creativity and design skills. Masters entrants may purchase a Scottie Masters Kit with a fiberglass body from the All-American Soap Box Derby.
The Ultimate Racing division, for those 17 to 21, was added in recent years to allow for a new level of creativity and design expertise. Ultimate racers design their own cars from scratch.
In the primary divisions, soap box cars employ standardized wheels with precision ball bearings and weights if necessary. They are powered only by gravity and can reach speeds of 35 miles an hour on the Akron track. Rally races and qualifying races in cities around the world use advanced systems that measure the time difference between the competing cars to the thousandth of a second. Each heat of a race lasts less than 30 seconds. Most races are double elimination races where a racer who loses a heat can work his or her way through the Challenger’s Bracket in an attempt to win the overall race. The annual World Championship race in Akron, however, is a single elimination race which uses overhead photography, triggered by a timing system, to determine the winner of each heat. Approximately 600 racers compete in two or three car heats to determine a World Champion in each of the divisions.
Local winners can earn a trip to Akron one of two ways—either by winning their local race or by accumulating points by racing at various venues or “rallies” across the country. Champions are categorized as either local race winners or rally champs.
Sometimes, Derby competitors get hooked on racing for the long haul. Over the decades-long span of the Soap Box Derby, several participants ended up in professional auto racing, including the 1983 Indy 500 winner Tom Sneva and NASCAR’s four-time Daytona 500 Winner Cale Yarborough.
The goals of the Soap Box Derby program have not changed since it began in 1934. It brings families together in an environment that fosters communication, cooperation and just plain fun. That’s why every participant in the All-American Soap Box Derby is a true winner—in every sense of the word. —Jane Day