Soap Box Derby gave delight to kids -- the buyers of the future
Chevrolet sponsored one of the most endearing and longest-running sporting events in America
Photo credit: GM CORP.
Back before TV, video games or the Super Bowl, Chevrolet sponsored an event that may have done more than any event of its time to capture the imagination of kids - and, not coincidentally, make them eager to become drivers.
The All-American Soap Box Derby was tailor-made for kids with fertile imaginations who enjoyed hammering old wooden soap crates together, adding a set of wheels and imagining themselves streaking toward the finish line at the Indy 500.
It all started in Dayton, Ohio, early in 1933. A reporter from the Dayton newspaper named Myron Scott witnessed a group of boys rolling down a local hill in hand-built contraptions. "The thought came to me," recalled Scott, "that a race in such homemade cars could be a wonderful competitive sports event for youngsters and could provide a good story and pictures for my newspaper."
34 drivers in first race
Scott talked to his editor and won his approval. And so it was that the first Soap Box Derby was held in Dayton on a Saturday in August 1933 with 34 entries. More than 40,000 people showed up to watch those homemade racers coast down a local hill powered only by gravity and enthusiasm.
That first race was won by Bob Turner of Muncie, Ind., who put his racer together with wood from a saloon bar, Frank Deford wrote in Sports Illustrated. During preliminaries, Turner found that his racer would actually go faster after he stripped the rubber tires off his wheels. But after he crossed the finish line during the finals, all four wheels fell off the car. Turner received a $500 scholarship from Chevrolet - a lot of money in those Depression days.
After the 1934 derby, Chevrolet decided to sponsor the event nationally, with Scott in charge. It was moved to Akron in 1934 because that city had more hills.
An accident in 1935 captured the public's interest and boosted the event's profile. A car went off the track and struck NBC sportscaster Graham McNamee while he was broadcasting live. Despite a concussion and other injuries that would require a two-week hospital stay, McNamee described the collision to his listeners and finished his broadcast.
Celebrities added glitter
Over time, the derby became a phenomenon in terms of crowds and pageantry. Chevrolet brought in many celebrities to promote the event, including James Stewart, Dinah Shore, Pat Boone, Abbott and Costello, Roy Rogers, Edgar Bergen, Art Carney and Bob Cummings. Even Richard Nixon made an appearance as vice president in 1959.
Preliminary events still take place all over the country, but the finals remain in Akron at the Derby Downs. Initially, the track was 1,175 feet long with a 16 percent grade that allowed cars to reach speeds of 50 mph. Periodically, for safety's sake, the track has been shortened and the grades lessened to bring the current speeds closer to 35 mph.
There are strict rules for each class, including dimensions of the cars and total weight of the cars and drivers. While contestants build their own cars, the wheels and bearings are provided. Rules also govern what can be done with axle rods and steering rods.
Bending the rules
Building a competitive Soap Box Derby racer became a real science, with many contestants testing the spirit if not the letter of the rules with wild body shapes and mechanical nuances. In 1973 the winner was disqualified after officials discovered an electromagnet embedded in the front of his car, which helped give the car a slight forward momentum toward the metal starting paddle.
In 1971, girls were included in the competition. Today there are six divisions for different ages and levels of experience.
Chevrolet sponsored the derby until 1972. At its peak, the derby was one of the top five sporting events in terms of attendance, with as many as 70,000 spectators for the finals in Akron. The All-American Soap Box Derby still attracts thousands of spectators to Akron annually.
Today, 78 years later, one thing hasn't changed. The derby is still all about fantasy, the need for speed and imaginations run wild.