Life

The All-American Soap Box Derby

Maurice Bales, 13, of Anderson Ind., is shown winning the first national Soap Box Derby held in Akron in 1935.

Myron E. Scott, a photographer for the Dayton Daily News, was  crossing a Dayton street one day when he was nearly run down by a young boy speeding downhill in a strange looking homemade wagon. Scott  no sooner caught his breath when he found himself dodging other boys in similar vehicles.

He realized the boys were racing and took a closer look at the cars. They were made from orange crates and soap boxes with baby buggy wheels and household odds and ends holding them together.

He photographed the boys and their crude cars and was so impressed by the boys’ creativity and enthusiasm that he went back to his office and began a campaign to persuade his newspaper to help organize a national race of these cars built of soap boxes. With his newspaper behind him, he sold his idea to the Chevrolet Motor Division of General Motors Corp. and the Soap Box Derby was born.

Young boys from 34 cities came to Dayton to participate in the first derby in 1934.

Contestants prepare for the second heat in the first Detroit News Soap Box Derby in 1935 at Rouge Park.

      The following year, with boys from more than 55 cities competing, the Derby was moved to Akron to take advantage of its central location and hilly terrain. In 1936, akron civic leaders recognized the need for a permanent track site for the race and Derby Downs became a reality.

Each year, with the exception of World War II years, youngsters from all over the U.S. and several foreign countries have come to Akron to race the cars they built themselves.

The Detroit News signed on as an early sponsor of the Soap Box Derby in Detroit and the first Detroit News Soap Box Derby was run in 1935. The Detroit Chevrolet Dealers Association joined with The News in sponsoring the event, with the winner advancing to the national race in Akron.

Anything that moves on wheels is of interest to Detroit, and the Soap Box Derby was no exception. Public interest was high . More than just a sporting event, it gave boys something worthwhile to do. Building the racers required thought, labor and purpose. The youths were encouraged to build racers that were better than the rest, not unlike what the Motor City itself did on a much larger scale.

Edmund Richardson, Jr. of Royal Oak , the 1936 Detroit News Derby Champion, built his racer entirely of discarded materials.

He found an old metal sign in an alley and shaped it into the body of the car. He turned wheels out of boards from an orange crate and made metal hub caps out of tin cans.

Leonard Horton, 13, the winner of the 1935 Detroit News Soap Box Derby, accepts his prize — a tool chest — from George W. Stark of The Detroit News. He holds the M.E. Coyle Trohpy in his arms.

      All this junk had to be adapted, detailed and conformed to take advantage of gravity. Commericially built cars were banned from the event.

The derby was originally open to boys ages 6-16, but was later changed to ages 11-15. Entrants could not spend more than $10 on materials and could not have assistance from machine shops, garages or adults.

In addition to competing for the right to represent their communities in Akron, winners received scholarships and merchandise.

Detroit winners flew to Akron in style in “The Early Bird,” The Detroit News’ airplane.

All cars entered in the local and national derbys had to pass rigid inspection as to specifications and safety.

The participants of the 1935 Derby said half the fun of building their racers was finding the wheels. Wheels were the most important detail in a coasting race. They were taken off wagons, baby carriages or found in second hand stores. In later derbies, new wheels were distributed to the contestants the day before the race.

The Detroit race was run on a special track set up in Rouge Park. A steel ramp was erected at the top of Spinoza Drive to give just the right starting speed down the 615-foot course. The course was laid out with three yellow printed lines on smooth asphalt. Racers coasted down the hill and ramp with no motive power except gravity. In 1956, the Detroit Derby was moved to a new track on Derby Hill on Outer Drive east of Mound Road.

The derbies were not without controversy. In the 1935 Detroit Derby, 13-year-old Gordon Johnson of St. Francis Xavier school won the first heat of the race handily but after crossing the finish he discovered the heat had been called “no race.”

The heat was run again but Gordon couldn’t get his car up the hill in time for the restart.

Car and driver had to weigh in at 250 pounds or less. Danny Kosikowski of Detroit sighs in relief after learning he just made the limit in 1960.

The weight limit of 250 pounds for car and driver caused some anxious moments. One year, Robert Wacozyniak, 12, of Mt. Clemens, tipped the official scales at 251 1/2 pounds. It was a hot day so he took his car for a few turns on Derby Hill and then trotted around himself. Returning to the scales for the official weigh-in, the needle bounced around but stopped at 249 3/4 pounds! “It was a close call but I made it,” he sighed .

It was touch and go for Robert Hanlon, the 1962 Detroit Derby Champ. He locked himself in his room in Akron the night before the race, fearing he might start to eat something he shouldn’t. It paid off. He and his car weighed in at a little more than 249 pounds.

Both the local and national derbies were grand events. Thousands of spectators cheered the youths on. It was a family event with picnics, games and loads of fun. There were parades, banners, receptions, music and celebrities, such as Chuck Connors, Hugh O’Brien and Lorne Greene. Vice-President Richard Nixon made an appearance in Akron at the 1959 All- American Derby. Finalists were celebrities in their own right and were interviewed on local radio and televison shows.

In 1940, 12 year-old Tommy Fisher became the first Detroit Derby finalist to wear the crown of the All-American Derby at Derby Downs before a crowd of 75,000 people.

The Detroit News Soap Box Derby celebrated its silver anniversary in 1962 . Detroit was one of eight derbies in the nation that had sent an entry to the nationals since the first race in 1934. The winner of that first Detroit race at the State Fairgrounds, sponsored by the Detroit Times and Chevrolet, was Claude Healy.

As the interest in the derby peaked , Detroit hosted two derbies, the city and suburban, and sent two representatives to the finals.

In 1964, two Detroit brothers won both city and suburban titles. Patrick Shorkey, 13, won the Detroit meet and his brother Thomas, 11, took the suburban championship. (The race an entrant participated in depended on the Chevrolet dealership where he registered, not his home address.) The brothers ended up competing against each other at the Nationals but, perhaps fortunately, neither was the big winner.

By 1964, it had become a new era in soap box racing.

Time trials were now being allowed, giving the boys a chance to get the feel of their car and become familiar with the track.

The cars were noticeably different. Gone were the orange crates, old wheelbarrows, lawn mower handles and ropes. Cars became sleeker, ran on ball-bearing wheels and glistened with metallic paint. Drivers had to lie down in their cars rather than sit. Progress had caught up with the racer but it hadn’t taken away the fun and excitement of the race.

Girls were not allowed to compete in the Soap Box Derby until 1971. Here Dinise Woodside, 13, awaits inspection of her “Wink” car in the 1972 Detroit News derby.

      Dolores Korb of Ferndale, attempted to be the first female to enter the Detroit Derby in the 1967 competition. She was ruled ineligible because the rules stipulated that only boys between the ages of 11 and 15 could compete. As a concession, they allowed her to offically open the event.

But four years later, girls were finally admitted. Six girls entered the 34th running of the metro Detroit Soap Box derbies in 1971, and three won their first heats. Denice Terebus of Warren, Roberta Pel of Toledo and Diane Skrzypek proved they could build winning cars. In 1984, a 14 year-old freckle-facedKaren Johnson of Farmington became the first girl to win the suburban championship.

In 1975, Karen Snead, an 11-year-old from Morrisville, Pa., was the first girl to win the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron with a photo-finish victory.

Girls weren’t the only changes. Kids in the ’70s were larger than those of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Youngsters had trouble fitting into the dimensions of a Soap Box Derby racer. Weight limits changed, inches were added to the length of the car and kids could now spend up to $40 on materials.

Scandal rocked the Derby in 1973. It was discovered that the winning car had electromagnets embedded in its fiberglass body, allegedly giving it a starting advantage. It was estimated that $10,000 to $20,000 had been spent building the car. It sent shock waves through the Derby community and started a decline in Derby interest and speeded sponsor withdrawals.

Chevrolet had dropped its national sponsorship following the 1971 race and The Detroit News followed suit shortly after.

The Akron Chamber of Commerce, which ran the Derby, dropped its participation following the scandal but was replaced by the Akron Jaycees.

In Detroit, financial problems forced consolidation of the two local derbys. There was now one race for Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties.

By 1974, the number of entrants in the Detroit-area Derby, now called the Autorama Metro Detroit Soap Box Derby, had dropped to 30, compared to 526 in the 1956 championship.

During this time, the Michigan Hot Rod Association changed the name to Autorama Metro Detroit Soap Box Derby.

Derby racing is starting to regain it’s popularity in the ’90s. There is even talk of resuming the 64-year-old sport in Metro Detroit .

The days of baby carriage wheels nailed to a soap box are gone forever. But though today’s cars are more High-Tech, the Derby remains a wholesome activity that teaches the value of hard work, craft and honest competition.


This car designed by Roger K. Woodside was selected Best Designed Car at the 1966 national Derby in Akron.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files from The Detroit News Library.)

By Mary Bailey / detnews.com