The All American Soapbox Derby

By | July 27, 2019

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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.

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Charlie Chaplin in the Kid Auto Races at Venice. Source: (Wikipedia)

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.