An American gravity powered tradition since 1934
From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to the earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free.”—Jacques Cousteau
Gilbert Klecan looks like he just went 200 laps at Indy, but that’s graphite, not race grime. He dusted his car—and himself—with it to slip through the air and go faster. Maybe it worked, because he ended up taking the win in 1946.
With all due respect to the esteemed late sea explorer, we would suggest that gravity can also be freeing. You won’t skim the sky or submerge into the sea, but with wheels and the most scant of platforms, you can work the laws of physics to your advantage.
Robert Turner of Muncie, Indiana, was the winner of the second-annual Soap Box Derby race, in 1934.
Such is the idea behind the All- American Soap Box Derby, an American tradition since 1934. We didn’t invent such things of course. Rolling downhill in wheeled vehicles had been fun since there were wheeled vehicles. An early Stateside boost may have come from the cinema: when the Vanderbilt Cup moved to Santa Monica, California for 1914, the city sponsored a junior version of the Cup, which included engineless, gravity-driven-car classes for kids. Charlie Chaplin took the opportunity to photograph some improvised comedy scenes on site; shortly after, the film Kid Auto Races at Venice (or The Pest) launched Chaplin’s “Little Tramp,” and his brand of physical comedy, into the entertainment stratosphere. But the enduring legacy of the All- American Soap Box Derby had its roots in a feel-good newspaper puff piece. In the summer of 1933, Myron Scott was a photographer with the Dayton Daily News, and came upon some neighborhood boys racing their homemade gravity-powered cars down a hill. Scott arranged for the boys to come back a week later, so he could officiate the race himself. Nineteen kids showed up. Scott pitched his editor on a sponsorship—the paper kicked in $200. The promoted derby was held on August 19, 1933. The day of the race, an estimated 40,000 spectators lined the course to watch 362 kids race their home-built gravity-fed specials. Sheet tin, orange crates, and wheels pirated from little red wagons were common in the field; ironically, there is no record of a car having been made from an actual soap box. Rules specified that the race was for boys only, but a couple of girls bamboozled officials and raced anyway—including one who won second place. For 1934, the event moved to Akron, chosen both for its hilly terrain (down Tallmadge Avenue) and its central location within Ohio. Also, the event went national: Scott encouraged races nationwide, with the winners from each region to come to Akron and compete for the All-American Soap Box Derby World Championship. The rules were simple, and the rule book, all nine sentences of it, could fit on a single sheet of paper. The gist of it was simply this: As long as the race vehicle was built by the driver, it was anything-goes. The event, held August 19 of that year, was won by Robert Turner of Muncie, Indiana; his car was made from wood that once served as the bar in a saloon.
Today, girls are just as likely as boys to build and race winning Soap Box Derby cars. Mallory Bruen of Northern Maine, Maine, took the checkers in 2016 in the Super Stock class.
With the popularity of the event on the rise, Akron’s civic leaders saw the need for a permanent site for the event. Derby Downs, the home of the All-American Soap Box Derby World Championship since 1936 located in the southeastern corner of town, was a WPA project. The 1,150-foot hill saw fearsome wheel-to-wheel competition for decades. As the official sponsor of the event, Chevrolet dealerships were your Soap Box Derby headquarters, making wheels, axles and rulebooks available at the parts counter; the division also awarded college scholarships to top finishers. Second and third place received a car; it’s entirely possible that someone along the line threw a race in order to score a new car over college money. The success didn’t go unnoticed. Editor & Publisher, a monthly magazine focused on the newspaper industry, ran a story on the Soap Box Derby, and suddenly papers across the country were sponsoring their own gravity-racing events. (Myron Scott would later go on to be employed by Chevrolet directly, and was the man responsible for naming a car that we now know as the Corvette.) With increased exposure for the event came increased competition as builders stepped up their games. Eleven-year-old Cliff Hardesty from White Plains, New York, showed up in Akron in 1939, with an immaculately-assembled car... and four dozen protest letters from local New Yorkers who cast doubts on whether his car was actually built by Hardesty himself. Race inspectors grilled the boy for hours, finally insisting that he duplicate his car’s front suspension; when Hardesty got to work designing a better system than what was already on the car, they stopped him. Hardesty won the world championship that year. Racing stopped from 1942-’45, due to WWII, but racing has been held continually at Derby Downs since 1946. That year, Gilbert Klecan of San Diego became known as the “Graphite Kid,” because he covered his car (and face) with graphite in an effort to reduce wind resistance. He won. One of the 1954 competitors, Denny Zimmerman of Hartford, would go on to be Indy 500 Rookie of the Year in 1971. A pair of brothers from Anderson, Indiana, Terry and Barney Townsend, won the event in 1957 and ’59, respectively. During this era, organizers provided identical wheels to each racer, in an attempt to level the playing field. Soap Box Derby racing hit its stride in the postwar era, clear into the 1960s. According to a 1959 issue of Boys’ Life, three million people witnessed or participated in some aspect of derby, including the 11-15-year-old boys who were eligible to participate directly. The All-American drew 75,000 spectators, and TV and film stars made appearances at the World Championships in Akron each year. It was one of the top-five best-attended sports events in America. Starting in 1971, the field was finally opened to girls; the first female winner was 11-year-old Karren Stead of Lower Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1975. But things started to change in the 1970s. Beginning in 1972, Chevrolet withdrew its $1-million-yearly sponsorship of the All-American Soap Box Derby; John DeLorean felt that the event was outdated and too expensive for the division’s coffers. When Chevrolet pulled out, the race shrank from 252 participating cities to 138 in a single year. Trademarks and copyrights were transferred to the Akron Chamber of Commerce, and for 1974, rights were assigned to the Akron Jaycees, which then established a corporation, International Soap Box Derby Inc., to run things. In the midst of the sponsorship turmoil came the great Derby controversy of 1973. Bob Lange Jr., won the 1972 event, and for 1973, Lange’s cousin Jimmy Gronen drove a car that was visually identical to Lange’s. Gronen won the 1973 event, but was stripped of the title two days later. Officials had already replaced Gronen’s wheels and tires after they were seen to be chemically treated to reduce rolling resistance. But X-ray examination showed that Gronen’s car also had an electromagnet in the nose, which was attracted to the steel paddle used to start the race; it allowed Gronen to get a jump on the competition. In the end, second-place finisher Bret Yarborough was named the 1973 champion, and Gronen’s uncle and legal guardian Robert Lange Sr., paid a $2,000 fine to settle the charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Only one world champ was crowned through 1975, but for 1976, the corporation established a Junior division, designed for the 10-12-year-old set. The Junior division, also known as the “kit car” division, saw racers build their own cars from kit-supplied hardware and patterns for floorboards. Now there were two world champs, one per division. History continued to be made in Akron. The first brother-sister All-American champions were Joan and Mark Ferdinand of North Canton, Ohio, who won in 1976 and ’77, respectively. The only repeat champion was Danielle Del Ferraro of Stow, Ohio, in 1993 and 1994. Starting in 1992, the Derby added a “stock” division, with cars made from kits rather than completely home-built, for drivers aged 8-13. A third world champ was added to the roster. The track record, 26.30 seconds on the 1,150-foot hill, was set in 1940; in 1977, the fastest car ever to race was clocked at 53 mph at the finish line. The track has since been shortened to 989.4 feet, with the current 28.24-second record run set in 2004. Year by year, race by race, history continues to be made. And still, every July, 10,000 spectators and kids from around the world descend upon Akron, Ohio. All of whom understand that, while man may carry the weight of gravity upon his shoulders, wheels can make that gravity an awful lot of fun.