Friday, June 25, 2004
Remembering lessons learned from a Soap Box Derby
When I read in the Mosquito that a Soap Box Derby will be held during Old Home Day, I e-mailed race organizers and offered to volunteer. I explained that, although it happened 57 years earlier, in another town and in another state, I won the Soap Box Derby and competed in the national finals in Akron, Ohio. Michael Jackson asked me to be an Honorary Judge and to oversee safety during the OHD event; I'll be there, even though my official Soap Box Derby shirt no longer fits.
On a recent Saturday morning I met with Corey and Lisa Lofdahl, whose daughter will race. Over coffee and cake, I talked about my experiences and later in the day watched as the youngsters took a few practice runs in their racer, sensibly turning down Corey's kind offer to "take a spin."
But when I got home I wondered if I'd remembered events accurately, or was I spinning yarns about my "15 minutes of fame," as my wife refers to it. After all, it happened nearly 60 years ago. And while some years ago I finally let go of the racer I built, I'd stored the wheels, trophy, flag, photos and countless newspaper articles. So I went to the attic, opened boxes and started reading.
The Soap Box Derby began in 1933 in Dayton, Ohio. Local kids built rattle-trap race cars and staged a neighborhood contest. A photographer took pictures which appeared in newspapers around the country.
At General Motors in Detroit an idea began to take shape: develop a series of national races that would appeal to every youngster's interest in anything with four wheels so he'll "think Chevrolet" by the time he's old enough to buy a car. In 1934, Chevrolet and the country's leading newspapers agreed to co-sponsor the " All-American Soap Box Derby."
At first, according to the "How To Build A Soap Box Derby Racer" manual (1947), you could do anything you wanted. There were no rules and few specifications governing car building other than that the cars had to run on four wheels, be steered by a wheel and driven by a boy. There were cars in the 1935 finals mounted on bicycle wheels, on lawn mower wheels, on wheels taken off hospital cots; pneumatic tires, on hard rubber tires, on steel bands, etc.
Nationally, it was pretty much a free-for-all until Chevrolet organized the chaos and set down rules, the foremost being Rule #1: "The Soap Box Derby car must be built by the boy who drives it." Car weight was limited to 150 pounds car and driver together could not weigh more than 250 pounds. And competitors had to buy "official wheels," which were only sold, of course, through Chevrolet dealers.
World War II put an end to Soap Box Derby activities after 1941 until 1946, when races were again held around the country, including my hometown of Mamaroneck, New York, in Westchester County. Chevrolet's commitment: if you won a regional event, they'd send you and your parents to Akron for the finals to compete for the Grand Prize: a four-year college scholarship.
Early lesson in local politics
Like most boys, I built various vehicles for fun and raced them against what the other neighborhood kids built. During WWII, I built a scaled-down version of an Army Jeep which I raced down the hill in front of our home. When I decided to enter the hometown Derby, I bought the wheels for $12., using money I earned delivering newspapers. I built my car and took it out to the course for two practice runs before the big race.
Because Mamaroneck was a small town didn't mean it was without politics. Many other locals were also focused on winning the local event and going to Akron. The day before the race, officials questioned whether I'd built the car myself. They began asking me a lot of detailed questions. I was ready for them and answered every one, even volunteering technical information on matters about which they had failed to ask. (After all, I'd not only built the car but read every issue of Popular Mechanics my dad brought home.)
Still not convinced, race officials took me to a local vocational school to test my proficiency with hand and power tools at home we didn't have a single power tool. They gave me some plywood and told me to cut rounded templates for a new racer, allowing me to use an industrial strength bandsaw; it was the first time I'd ever used any power tool. After sketching a pattern, I slowly began cutting templates.
The "officials" grudgingly acknowledged that I probably had built the car myself. My dad, who was with me the whole time but could not say anything, was livid and insisted that officials send me a letter stating that I did indeed build the racer and to convey that information to any reporters covering the race. I still have that letter of absolution: even though I was only 13 and weighed about 108 pounds, we weren't going to let them push us around.
On a Saturday in July, the main road into town was cordoned off and a 1,000-foot track was outlined with white paint. There were 35 contestants; about 5,000 spectators lined the course. Racers were launched two abreast off of five-foot-high purpose-built ramps. After cars were mounted on the ramps, drivers climbed in and at the crack of a starter's pistol trap doors sprang open and we were off.
Volunteers timed each "heat" as two motorcycle policemen trailed the race cars, telling reporters afterwards that we reached speeds of 35 mph by the time we hit the finish line. After each "heat," the winning car and driver were loaded into a truck and driven back to the starting ramps.
To reach the final I had to win five "heats" against other racers in my age group: 10-13. In the last race, I beat the Class A winner who was 15 years old.
Akron and Derby Downs
Chevrolet put us up at the Mayflower Hotel, along with 134 other contestants and their families. During the week-long festivities I had my picture taken with Lt. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, who, everyone in America knew, led the B-26 raid on Tokyo in 1942. Doolittle was then a vice president with Shell Oil, a big-time sponsor of the event.
I also met actor and event Grand Marshall Jimmy Stewart, who closed his Broadway show Harvey for a day so he could make the trip to Akron. Stewart later made a movie based on the life of the 1946 Derby winner. (Don't wait up for it.)
The Derby Downs track, as I recall, is smooth concrete, 1,800 feet long, and formidable the first time I saw it. The actual racing distance is 1,000 feet, similar to my hometown course. About 100,000 spectators lined the raceway.
When I finally got to see the cars I was to race against, I wondered if their owners interpreted Rule #1 the same way I did; some of the cars were gorgeous and looked as though they'd just come off an assembly line in Detroit. In the pits, when I talked to some of the other drivers about how they went about building their racers; they openly told me "my dad built it...so what! I'm here, aren't I!"
In Akron, steel plates buried in the roadway held cars three abreast; at a signal, the plates simultaneously retract and cars begin their descent. When officials discovered powerful magnets cleverly hidden in the nose of one car, the race was held up until all vehicles could be inspected. I passed. The kid who got ejected told officials he figured the magnets would pull his car forward, theoretically giving him an edge even one-hundredth of a second, as I learned, can be the margin of victory in any competition.
How'd I do?
Well, I didn't win the college scholarship. According to an AP story which appeared the next day in my hometown paper, I lost in the first heat by three-hundredths of a second to the guy who ultimately won the overall event.
Long ago probably after I got my driver's license I discovered the limitations of gravity-powered vehicles. I've maintained my interest in all things automotive (nowadays I review new cars and report my findings to newspapers, magazines, web sites) and build period furniture in my shop in Carlisle, where my wife and I have lived since 1986.
I don't think OHD is awarding any college scholarships to this year's Derby winner. Contestants should enter the competition because they enjoy cars and doing something with their hands because it satisfies the creative side of their beings. And as I discovered nearly 60 years ago, they should play the game according to the rules.
The legendary sports writer Grantland Rice clarified this for all of us when he wrote:
"When the One Great Scorer comes
To mark against your name,
He writes - not that you won or lost
But how you played the game."
© 2004 The Carlisle Mosquito