The Soap Box Derby – Auto Racing

You might be forgiven for wondering what the Soap Box Derby has to do with auto racing – the “racers” have no engines after all! Yet a race is a race, and since its inception way back in 1933 it’s likely that more than a few of today’s superstar racecar drivers first experienced the thrill of victory by competing in the All-American Soap Box Derby.

The Great Depression was in its darkest depths when Myron Scott, a photographer who worked for the Dayton Daily News, planted the seed of an idea that would soon blossom: kids driving homemade cars down a hill, powered only by the force of gravity. Soap was delivered to stores and homes in sturdy wooden boxes back then, and these crates were the perfect size and shape to be transformed into wheeled coaster cars. A few nails, some twine and four wheels off a junked baby buggy gave budding Derby racers the basics of what they needed to craft a competitive racer. By the late 1930s as Derby or coaster car racing took off in popularity, rules and regulations became standardized and the World Championship final began to be held every July at the purpose-built Derby Downs track in Akron, Ohio.

Soap Box Derby racing reached its peak of popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, when the combination of national sponsorship by Chevrolet and exposure on television helped bring upwards of 70,000 spectators to Akron each year for the World Championships. Hundreds of competitors (boys only until 1971) raced down the concrete course at Derby Downs during the championships, to have their speed and finish times recorded by sophisticated measuring devices and overhead photography.

Alas, the good times Soap Box Derby racing enjoyed for so many years hit a series of “speed bumps” in the 1970s. Just one year after coaster racing was opened to girls, Chevrolet abruptly ended their long-time sponsorship of the sport. Over the next few years, a series of scandals that tainted the “boy (or girl) built” purity of coaster racing left a sour taste in the mouths of many loyal fans. Even so, the All-American Soap Box Derby soldiers on to this day; as thousands of spectators descend on Derby Downs every July to watch hundreds of champions from countries as far away as the Philippines and Japan split the breeze, racing to a photo finish!

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