The All American Soapbox Derby
Nicholas Kaderabek, 12, keeps his focus as he competes in the Soap Box Derby races in Lake Forest on Saturday, December 29, 2018. Source: (Photo by Mindy Schauer/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
Children expressing entrepreneurialism, individualism, and derring-do by building their own gravity-powered race cars or “soapboxes” are a touchstone for traditional American culture. Most Americans if they have not participated in or directly witnessed it, know what soapbox racing is and recognize it is an American tradition.
Curiously, these types of races did not begin in the United States.
Organized automobile racing began in the late 19th century. In 1904, in Oberursel, Germany, the first “gravity races” were held, inspired by these motor car races. In these early competitions, children designed their own cars out simple materials, such as wooden soapbox crates. Competitors then raced their vehicles down slopes allowing gravity to do all the work.
As a testament to the sport’s growing popularity, and probably contributing to its trendiness, in 1914 Charlie Chaplin starred in the movie The Kid Auto Races at Venice in which Chaplin, in the first appearance of his famous “tramp” character acted as a spectator for at a children’s gravity race.
It was in the 1930s, however, when the popularity of these races became cemented as a part of American sports tradition. In 1933, Myron Scott, a photographer for the Dayton Daily News in Ohio, saw three children racing their “soapbox cars” in an ad hoc race. Inspired, he organized a more official race the next week with nineteen boys. Encouraged he solicited and received $200 from his reluctant editor to organize a more official race in Dayton on August 19, 1933. To his delight, 362 kids showed up with 40,000 spectators. In 1934, he organized the first “All American” race under the corporate sponsorship of Chevrolet where children from all across the country were invited to Dayton to race their creations.
The next year, the race moved to Akron, Ohio, whose hillier terrain provided a more exciting racetrack. The race proved to be so popular, that the next year Akron officials built a permanent venue for the event with the help of the Works Progress Administration. When Derby Downs was completed with its 1,100 raceway of three lanes, the All American Soapbox Derby was in Akron to stay.
Newspapers began to sponsor local and regional races in the rest of the country. From the end of World War II to the 1960s, Soapbox racing could be said to be in a golden age. The All American attracted tens of thousands to its annual event and millions were involved in racing all through the country. In 1970, the races opened to girls for the first time in its history. In 1975, Karren Stead was the first girl to win the derby -- she drove her cart with a cast on her left arm.
The 1970s augered a dark time for the sport. First Chevrolet withdrew its sponsorship in 1972 claiming it was too expensive and outdated. The Akron Area Chamber of Commerce could not find another corporate sponsor so it assumed responsibility for the program in 1973.
In that year’s race, the winner was a 14-year-old Jimmy Gronen of Boulder, Colorado. But there were suspicions. His soapbox car accelerated too quickly. X-rays showed that the car had an electromagnet in its nose which the boy installed under the advice of his uncle Robert Lange. The electromagnet was activated when Gronen pushed his helmet into the headrest. This allowed the car to pull quickly past the starting gate. He was caught because as he used the magnet in heat after heat, the effect would weaken and his start times slowed. Gronen was forced to give back his $7,500 scholarship. He melted his trophy and later in life changed his name.
The affair was nicknamed the “Watergate on Wheels.”
Soapbox derbies declined in popularity since the scandal, sometimes being seen as old-fashion and kitsch. It also saw financial troubles in the early 2000s resulting in more direct intervention by the city of Akron. However, in recent years the sport has rebounded. Crowds still continue to come and derbies are held internationally. Speeds are impressive considering that gravity does all the work -- racers often attain 35 miles per hour.