As a boy I thought I was a pretty good one, as boys go, except for one thing. That was the All-American Soap Box Derby, which was run every August in Akron. You see, I didn't care much about cars, and I certainly couldn't build one. I couldn't even build a birdhouse in shop class. I would put this failing out of my mind for 364 days a year, and then the damn Soap Box Derby would be held in the middle of August in the Rubber City, and I had to admit once again that I was an impostor. I wasn't a real boy.
Real boys were supposed to build neat things with their hands. That's how you could tell boys from girls. The other identifying characteristics, plumbing or haircuts, snips and snails or sugar and spice, were incidental. Real boys took crates and skates and elbow grease, built cars and raced them. And I could never forget this because right in the middle of August, when there wasn't anything else going on except the humidity, right before the Robert Hall Back-to-School Sales, here came the Soap Box Derby, starring a host of real boys.
The All-American Soap Box Derby was mighty glamorous, too. Not only was it in the Rubber City, but it was in the Midwest, which I always thought was the one true place for boys, for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, for Pen-rod and for all the fellows down at the old swimming hole. I just assumed that Our Gang and the Hardy Boys and all the guys in the comic strips also lived in the Midwest. Smallville, Centerville, Midville, Metropolis, Main Street, Central High, State U were all, I was sure, in the Midwest. When I discovered that the All-American Soap Box Derby trumpeted itself as "boydom's greatest sports event," it certified for me that Boydom itself was in the Midwest. I told you so.
The race was promoted by Chevrolet, maker of the biggest-selling car in the country. "See the USA in your Chevrolet" was, in fact, fibbing some about the magnitude of the Soap Box Derby, but let's not get into that quite yet. For didn't Chevrolet help bring Hollywood's brightest stars to the Rubber City, to "the greatest amateur racing event in the world," to crown the champion among "the finest boys in the world," i.e., not me? Chevrolet brought Jimmy Stewart to Akron regularly; Bud Abbott and Lou Costello; Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys; Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy; Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney; Art Baker (You Asked For It!); General Jimmy Doolittle (fresh from 30 seconds over Tokyo; you asked for it!); Dinah Shore; Pat Boone; Art Carney; the immortal Robert Cummings; Wendell Corey and "others too numerous to mention."
July 31, 1988
The vice-president of the United States himself went to the All-American in 1959. Did I tell you that they just call it the All-American? They don't refer to it as the Derby or anything so prosaic. The All-American. As if it were the only one, as if Choo Choo Justice and Whizzer White and Dick Groat never existed. It was a good thing I didn't know that back then, when I was trying to be a boy. The All-American. On top of everything else.
The vice-president didn't race in the Oil Can Trophy Race, which was the special event the glamorous Hollywood stars who went to Akron competed in, but he did award the boys' trophy to Barney Townsend of Anderson, Ind. The winner's father—always referred to as Dad, just as the champ's mother became simply Mom—Dad Townsend, said, "We never thought a man like Nixon would pay attention to small people like us."
And the vice-president, wallowing in the Midwest common folk, took this opportunity to drag godless Communist Russia into it. "Over there," Richard Nixon intoned, "the parents wouldn't have been allowed to do this." Mom Townsend got a bouquet of long-stemmed red roses, as champions' moms still do. The crowd, which Chevrolet sometimes estimated at upward of 100,000 or, more regularly, as just "the largest ever," roared its approval. Never forget that on Dec. 8, 1941, the All-American became the first sports event in the nation to cancel itself on behalf of the war effort.
Oh, what the hell, here are some more glamorous Soap Box stars very much worth mentioning: Arthur Godfrey, Joe E. Brown, Snooky Lanson (who went to Akron at the very height of his Your Hit Parade popularity), Jack Carson, Jack Dempsey, Herb Alpert, Batman, Ronald Reagan, Jim Backus and Jimmy Dean. Every year, such majesty was brought to the Rubber City to put a new shine on the crown jewel of Boydom.
Booth Tarkington—a great Midwesterner—once wrote, "The [boys] were upon their great theme: 'When I get to be a man!' Being human, though, the boys considered their present estate too commonplace to be dwelt upon. So, when the old men gather, they say: 'When I was a boy!" It really is the land of nowadays that we never discover."
And so, finally, this August past, I journeyed from the Here and Now to the Midwest to lay my boyhood to rest. It was the 50th running of the Soap Box Derby, golden anniversary of the All-American! Many of the old champions, erstwhile finest boys in the world, would be returning.
But a lot has happened. Some of it you already know. Some of the Midwest has gone to the Sun Belt and some to Japan. Chevrolet walked away from the All-American in 1972, and right after that, during the former vice-president's Watergate troubles, the All-American champion was caught cheating, and his father said, Hey, everybody does it. A lot of the local tire factories have closed, and now Akron doesn't want to be called the Rubber City anymore. Instead the chamber of commerce proclaims: "Golf fans recognize Akron as the Golf Capital of the World." I wasn't aware of that until last August, but then, Akron is like the rest of America. It isn't a place where things are made anymore. Only 28% of the ex-Rubber City is in manufacturing now. Imagine that. Once I was an outcast, a writer, a service-economy unto myself in a can-do world. America has caught up with me at last.
At the 1987 All-American the crowd topped out at maybe 10,000, and a large number of those spectators actually came to play in the marching bands. The glamorous stars from the Hollywood galaxy were Connie Needham, Dick Sargent, Billy Hufsey and Kevin Wixted, and everywhere they went they were loudly identified as "celebrities" so everyone would be sure to know. Moreover, the whole enterprise, the All-American Soap Box Derby, had to shut itself down for six weeks in the spring for that saddest of modern all-American reasons: insurance. That was just when the regionals were being held in places like Bellevue, Neb., Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Kansas City, Mo. On top of that, not all the All-American boys are boys now. A lot of the boys are girls. The All-American isn't exclusively in Boydom any longer.
Mercifully, though, when I left Akron, I didn't yet think the All-American was located in the land of Nowadays, so maybe we still have a chance.
Culturally vulgar institutions that endure are invariably blessed by serendipity. Anyone who sat around with his thinking cap on and tried to invent the Miss America Pageant or trick-or-treating or hog-calling contests or the All-American Soap Box Derby couldn't. But...one day in 1933, Myron Scott, a staff photographer for the Dayton Daily News with the soul of a p.r. man (this isn't just me trying to be poetic; that's what he eventually became), saw a bunch of real American boys monkeying around with homemade cars, and, bingo, Scott had an inspiration. That year he staged an informal race for 19 kids, including 12-year-old Bob Gravett, who painted a 7 on his car because, he says, it was the easiest number to draw. Gravett's racer, Old Number 7, became the All-American's symbol.
Soon enough Scott's paper was sponsoring the Soap Box Derby, with 34 entries for the national inaugural in 1934—including representatives from Akron, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis and Anderson, Ind., the five stalwart Midwestern cities that would go on to have a representative in all 50 editions of the All-American. That first official race was won by Bob Turner of Muncie, Ind., who put his buggy together with wood from a saloon bar and buck-fifty wheels. Turner's original didn't really get rolling, though, until he stripped the rubber tires off his wheels because "the Lord made me do it." Barely past the finish line, the wheels fell off Turner's winner, and the first Soap Box Derby champion skidded to a halt astride a two-by-four. He was awarded the $500 first prize, as 45,000 citizens cheered. It was the Depression, and free amusement was welcomed.
Chevrolet saw a good thing and came in as the Soap Box angel, and ignoring the Dayton throng, moved the event to Akron the next year, 1935. It made good business sense because Akron was where a lot of tires were made, and the tire companies had shown a lot of interest in the Derby, and Chevy had to buy a lot of tires.
Be that as it may, the Rubber City took the All-American to its heart that year, and a horde estimated at 90,000 trooped to the course that was laid out on Talmadge Hill. Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and Tom Mix were the first genuine celebrities shipped in, and a breathless republic tuned in to NBC for Graham McNamee's call. Unfortunately for sport's first golden throat, a lad from Oklahoma City went out of control coming down the hill and hammered into the Voice of the All-American. McNamee suffered a concussion and spent two weeks in a local hospital—the most serious injury ever at the Derby. Another Hoosier cub, Maurice Bale Jr., from the ever present Anderson, won, and McNamee awoke in his hospital room the next morning to read this headline in the Akron Beacon Journal: THE GREATEST DAY EVER IN AKRON.
In 1936, however, there was an even more glorious occasion, for the city got the WPA to construct an official Derby Downs on a hill out by the airport, next to the Rubber Bowl (where coach Gerry Faust's Akron University Zips now play), with a track 1,175 feet long. Rules grew more formal. Whereas in the first Akron race one kid competed in a contraption that looked like a hot-water tank welded between two bicycles, now boys couldn't spend more than $10 on the project; car and driver couldn't weigh more than a total of 250 pounds; and "axle rods and steering rods may be taken to machine shops to be cut to the proper length, but not for any other work." Real boys knew what that meant.
But the winner would get a $2,000 college scholarship—enough, in those days, to handsomely finance an entire baccalaureate—with the runner-up earning a Chevy. Whatever the rules were, the vehicles kept pace with the burgeoning rewards, and soon the boys were barreling down the incline at speeds as high as 50 mph. Periodically, for safety's sake, the length of the race has been cut, from the original 1,175 feet (with a 16% grade) down to the curious distance of 953'9" (with an 11% grade) that it is today.
In the All-American's heyday, the years just before World War II and for the generation after it, the race settled deep into our national consciousness. Not only did stars of stage and screen journey to the Rubber City, but the young winners, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, were whisked to New York to be introduced to the nation on The Voice of Firestone radio program, or to California, to ride on a Rose Bowl float. And these callow soprano heroes of Boydom were always front-page.
A lot of dailies not only showcased the new adolescent champ but featured pictures of the wacky celebrities engaging in their Oil Can Trophy Race high jinks. For example, in 1958 madcap Eddie Bracken stole the Oil Can trophy from the victorious Pat Boone and dashed off with it, while a flabbergasted Guy Madison gaped. Dinah Shore held the crowd enthralled in song for an hour and a half in 1953, waiting for the summer thunderheads to clear Akron...(drum roll)...and to this day the All-American has never been rained out. In 1951, a relatively humdrum crop of celebrities turned up—Paul Winchell, Ronald Reagan and Andy Devine—and a dummy won the Oil Can: Jerry Mahoney, accompanying ventriloquist Winchell. Jimmy Stewart came to the All-American half a dozen times, Lorne Greene five...but then, Bonanza was sponsored by Chevy.
Chevrolet held Akron in its benevolent thrall. It owned both the trademarks and the copyrights to the All-American, and every year the Beacon Journal had not one, but two Derby Day stories to breathlessly report: 1) who won, and 2) the news that Chevy had given the thumbs-up once again and the All-American would return to the Rubber City next August. Hooray! Apart from tires and Quaker Oats, Akron was pretty desperate for the Derby, because it wasn't yet Golf Capital of the World.
Then, in 1971, Chevy brought in America's Junior Miss to greet the winner at the finish line. This seemed like one more bounty from the generous Detroit benefactors, but, in fact, it was the handwriting on the wall.
The boys who won the Derby back in Boydom were as American as Chevrolet. The first champion, Bob Turner, actually came from the very town, Muncie, that was the site of Robert Staughton Lynd's sociological classic, Middletown: A Study In Contemporary American Culture. Turner himself grew up all-American, too: sentimental, overweight and the owner of an auto repair shop right there in Muncie. The Lord made me do it. Surely, he was ordained to win.
Bob Gravett, the builder of Old Number 7, became the president of a metal-stamping company and is now retired in Florida. Bob Ballard, champ of '37, became the president of an engineering firm (nine winners have become engineers). Claude Smith. '41, Akron's own first champion, grew up to be a salesman. Harold Williamson, '50, had to overcome rheumatic fever to triumph. The Townsend brothers, Terry and Barney, from Anderson, won in '57 and '59, respectively, and when Richard Kemp won in '54 nobody paid much attention to his brother, Jack. Richard was declared the "calmest" winner ever. The year before, another Muncie boy, Fred Mohler, won the National Championship, but he was so nervous he was known as Frettin' Freddy. He grew up to be a custodian at Ball State University, just like Dad Mohler had been.
In '52, Joey Lund, who lived in Georgia in a house without electricity or indoor plumbing, competed in a car made from a converted goat cart. He made a career out of the U.S. Navy. The '55 winner, Richard Rohrer, from Rochester, N.Y., already stood 6'1" at age 14. The son of a dentist and brother of an army officer, Rohrer was decreed to hail from the All-American Family, and we were even assured that his grandmother was "stylishly dressed." Moreover, the Beacon Journal suddenly decided for just this one year not to refer to the champion's parents as Mom and Dad, but as Mother and Father. Mother and Father Rohrer actually "vacationed in Florida," we were told.
Ken Cline, the '67 winner, also became a champ in amateur boxing. Gilbert Klecan, the first western winner—San Diego, 1946—now owns his own real estate company. And, you never know. After Darwin Cooper won in '51, to be congratulated by Winchell and Mahoney, Reagan and Devine, Mom Cooper said, "I wanted Darwin to be a doctor, but now he has his heart set on going to the General Motors school and becoming an auto mechanic." Close enough, he became a sales manager of recreational vehicles.
All-American boys have always been builders, not racers. Kick the tires, peer under the hood, twist this, tinker with that. By 1972 Chevrolet had doled out $1,750,000 in scholarships to builder boys, but then, that September, it cut the cord with the All-American. It wasn't a nasty break; General Motors handed over the trademarks and the copyrights to the Akron Chamber of Commerce. No, Chevrolet said something or other about "today's changing life-style." Things were different, families were different, fathers were different. Fathers didn't have so much time anymore, or, even, fathers weren't around at all. And boys were different. It wasn't anybody's fault. It was just, well...they just don't build 'em like they used to.
After Chevy got out of the All-American, the company increased its support of America's Junior Miss (remember that time when she came to the Rubber City?) and the Junior Olympics. The prettiest and flashiest girls; the fastest and strongest boys and girls. Glamour kids. Upfront types. Stars.
The All-American now means something else altogether. The victors are happy with modest spoils. In the junior division, the major prize the national champion gets is a bunch of power tools. The reward is in the building more than in the winning. Indeed, all the contestants are known as Champ in Akron. "Champ 137 report Topside," you hear over the P.A. system. "Champ 23 and Champ 66 ready for alignment." It's not like beauty pageants and Junior Olympics at all. There are no college scouts, no agents. On the other hand, at last year's All-American, Miss Teen USA was on hand, a declared "celebrity" right along with Connie Needham and Kevin Wixted.
Even for those blessed enough to actually win the All-American, it never amounted to much more than a fluky Saturday afternoon one August sometime ago. This is never so clear as when you see 17-year-olds walking around Derby Downs, unknown; they are past champions, former heroes, teenage has-beens...and perfectly undisturbed at their fate. "I doubt that winning has changed the dimensions of anyone's life," says Claude Smith, the hometown boy who won 47 years ago. "And I trust we all remember how much luck played a role. The top 10 are all the same—race again, shuffle the deck, and you'd come up with another winner."
"No, not me."
Nowadays when the vehicles are constructed more and more from preboxed $62 kits, luck is probably even a greater factor. Wheels used to matter so much. The builders would drill holes in their wheels, put weights in them. Going down the hill, the drivers would hum, trying to obtain a resonance to, as Terry Townsend, the '57 winner, says, "reach a certain harmony with your wheels." But now the wheels are assigned by lot. And always, winning has depended a great deal on what lane a racer draws, for the burning Midwest sun affects each of the three lanes differently as Derby Saturday wears along.
Still, back before life-styles changed, when a man's life was gauged by what make and model of General Motors car he drove, boys had dads full-time, and when supper was done they built things together. That is the All-American part. Bob Logan, who won in '65, returned with his father to Akron for the golden anniversary. Bob is a Baptist minister now. He and his Dad Logan, who was an engineer, worked 1,000 hours to build his racer, spending all of $23.80. The Logans, père et fils, would go through trash containers at cabinet shops, then take snapshots to prove to dubious Derby inspectors that they'd actually found their materials. Bob Sr. shakes his head. "They've taken away a lot of the originality now," he says.
In 1937, when Bob Ballard became the fourth All-American champ, his Dad Ballard was an engineer out of work, selling real estate on commission. Nights, father and son built different balsa wood model cars and then suspended them on rubber bands before a 20-inch fan in an old box that a refrigerator had come in—a wind tunnel—to find the best aerodynamic shape. "We found out, for example, that a curved bottom was important," Ballard says. "I learned more from my father than I ever did in college."
Ken Cline won in 1967 with a car that took 1,400 hours to build at a cost of $35. His car was designed to look like a grasshopper, and the driver's compartment had rabbit-fur lining. Ken was the third Cline brother to enter the All-American, and when the rules were changed in 1971, a younger sister also entered. All of them worked with their father, Dick, an electronics specialist. "Those cars were all boy-built," Ken says, "but my father stood right over me, and if did it wrong, he made me tear it off and do it again. In the old days, they encouraged innovativeness, to bend a rule, not break it.' "
Some dads, it developed, were more liberal in their assessment of the rules. Robert Lange of Boulder, Colo., whose son Robert Jr. won in 1972, declared, in fact, that there was "wholesale cheating" because "it's common knowledge that it is next to impossible for any 11-year-old to build a racer that can win at Akron."
Lange made this observation in 1973 after his nephew, James Gronen, had defended the championship Lange's son had won the year earlier. Derby officials had been suspicious of the Lange Gang and grew more so when young Gronen's heat times became progressively slower. Careful examination showed that when Gronen laid his head back at the start of the race, his helmet activated an electromagnet in the car's nose, causing the racer to burst out of the gate. Gronen's slower times were caused by the battery's running down.
Gronen was stripped of his title, but the car with which his cousin had won the year before conveniently disappeared, and so Robert Jr. still remains listed as the '72 winner. Robert Sr. was charged by a Boulder court with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and for his Fagin-like actions, he was urged by the court to contribute $2,000 to the Boys Clubs.
Damage done to the honored name of the All-American was considerable, especially since Chevy had pulled out only months before. In fact, in Akron they still grouse that GM suspected that the All-American was a scandal about to happen and severed connections just in time to leave the Rubber City holding the bag. In any event the '74 Derby was a threadbare event that was run by the local Jaycees on an "austerity budget." Only 99 cars, fewer than half the predicating total, showed up at Topside, and celebrities, real or inflated, were hard to come by.
Perhaps worse, all those dailies that had annually run pictures of the All-American champ—freckles, braces and all—now called attention to the death of Motherhood and Apple Pie. Further, since the president of the United States was then trying to stave off indictment, most papers could not also resist noting how the All-American twig seemed to be bent these days.
Here are some of the reasons why, if you find yourself in Akron on Aug. 13, you will still be able to enjoy the running of the 51st All-American:
•The race never gets rained out.
•The franchise was expanded by 100% when girls were admitted into Boydom in 1971.
•In 1976 the competition was split into two divisions—Juniors (9-12) and Seniors (12-16)—which means there are also 100% more winners and that...
•...younger kids can get hooked on the Derby, making racers from the kits in barely a weekend's time.
•Novar Electronics Company, from nearby Barberton, Ohio, became the event's major sponsor in 1975 because its president, James Ott, had been the sort of little boy who liked to build things.
•The governor of Ohio, Richard Celeste, leaned on a local insurance company, and for 1988 the All-American was able to buy protection at only 2½ times what it had cost the year before.
•It is still very Midwest, and we need that.
•And, if there were no All-American Soap Box Derby every August in Akron, the Cadet-ettes wouldn't be able to perform on the Thursday before the race as they have for the past 30 years. The Cadet-ettes are an all-girl drum-and-bugle corps, decked out in gold and white, and here is the medley they played for Derby fans: Manhattan; New York, New York; There's No Business Like Show Business; Give My Regards to Broadway; Battle Hymn of the Republic; Stars and Stripes Forever; The Marine's Hymn; The Air Force Song; The Caissons Go Rolling Along Anchors Aweigh; You're a Grand Old Flag; This Land Is Your Land; Yankee Doodle Dandy; This Is My Country; America, the Beautiful; Onward, Christian Soldiers; Blue Hawaii; and God Bless America.
You see, everybody doesn't do it. Everybody doesn't cheat.
In the days before the competition, all the champs are brought Topside, the staging area above the starting line, to have their vehicles inspected and to take one practice run. But for most of their time in Akron—even during their own official parade on Friday night—the champs are bivouacked 15 miles away, at Camp Y-Noah, where they can swim and play games and have pillow fights sans parents. A sign of the times: Virtually all of the senior boys joined with the senior girls in signing a petition to have a dance Thursday night, but some ambivalence about the opposite sex remained—a number of boys also chucked water balloons at the girls.
Assessing this, Alethia Cline, eighth-grader, 4'7½", 80 pounds, said, "No big deal." Alethia is known as Big Al. She was competing in the Rubber City as champion of Chicago, and, more important, she is the daughter of Ken Cline, the '67 winner, bidding to be the first second-generation national champion. Alethia loved being interviewed. Derby officials who have studied this say that the only discernible differences between girl champs and boy champs are 1) girls are "looser" behind the wheel, and 2) girls are better with the press.
This may lead you, as it did me, to wonder what good are the boys. All I can offer is this exchange between a little boy champ and a little girl champ at Camp Y-Noah. Boy: "Wow, do you see these power tools we can win?"
Girl: "Why do I want to win any power tools?"
Nowadays, a quarter to a third of the contestants are female. When the gender line was dropped in 1971, right away five girls entered the race. Two years later Diane Mills, from Carmel, N.Y., was runner-up in the senior division, in a hot-pink racer. The first distaff winner was Karren Stead of Morrisville, Pa., who triumphed in 1975 despite having suffered a dislocated thumb in a water-bomb fight at Camp Y-Noah. IT'S A GIRL! cried all the headlines. Stead, grown up and a retail-store manager now, accepts her place in history comfortably. "It's pretty neat to hit the big time when you're 12," she says. "Otherwise..." and she shrugs.
Girl or boy, most of the kids who enter the All-American do so because they're encouraged to by their fathers. For example, although he was recently let go by U.S. Steel, Marshall Rickard made the Derby a family project, and both his daughter, Kimberly, 15, and his son Jason, 11, became divisional champions of Northeast Ohio. Altogether, perhaps 2,000 kids made racers and competed on the local level in 1987, and a large number of them were the offspring of fathers who work with their hands, in "the trades." Engineers predominated among white-collar fathers.
The greatest number of mothers were housewives, followed by secretaries, teachers and nurses. Soap box families tend to be solid, working class, white, God-fearing, traditional. The Rubber City might have changed, but the families who go to the Ail-American are much the same as ever.
Because they tend to have so much in common, the parents of the contestants get along remarkably well. Some of them come in RVs, some stay downtown at the Holiday Inn or the Hilton (converted from the old Quaker Oats mill), but a lot of the families bunk at local college dorms. Fred Mohler always stays in one. "That's where the action is," Frettin' Freddy says. Mohler has attended 32 Ail-Americans and has a subscription to the Beacon Journal mailed to him in Muncie. He has sent Derby mementos to both Dinah Shore and President Reagan.
"I'll tell you how popular Derby winners are," Mohler says. "The President wrote me back on his personal stationery—it had stamps on the envelope. He was in the Oil Can in '51, you know, and he wrote me how fondly he still remembers that day."
Mohler is always very visible at Topside or out at Y-Noah. He favors an outfit of gold and maroon and carries a large bag of All-American memorabilia. He was especially thrilled last August when so many of the other winners returned and he got to meet them for the first time. "Maybe we can have a club," he proposed.
Also in evidence everywhere was Linda Sengpiel, a stunning yo-yo artist who did numerous feats of string prestidigitation despite wearing large rings on six of her fingers. Linda arrayed herself in ritzier attire each time she brought out the Duncans. I thought it was appropriate that a yo-yo champion decorated the All-American, because I'm sure that kids who can build cars are also the type who can walk the dog and go 'round-the-world and stuff like that. I never could. I couldn't even wind yo-yos back up very well after I screwed up. So I counted Linda a welcome addition.
But, above all, it is the families at the All-American. They bring picnics and folding aluminum chairs and video cameras, and they all wear buttons: MY GRANDSON IS A CHAMP...MY BROTHER IS A CHAMP. A few have those buttons where, if you tilt them this way or that you can see a photograph—of the champ, of course.
Since the champs are happily segregated out at Camp Y-Noah most of the time, the parents are left to inspect the racers, Topside. The cars show impressive craftsmanship. If most of the younger kids start off slapping together kit cars, they become much more original and creative as they grow older. All-American children may be led to the race by their fathers, but they obviously stay in it for love. Maybe you can make a kid who doesn't like baseball stand out in leftfield every Saturday morning, but you can't make him build a gorgeous car if he doesn't want to.
Still, only a handful of the 166 champs—including Big Al—expressed any interest in being race car drivers when they grew up. Instead they dream of being architects and scientists, teachers, lawyers (?!), astronauts and athletes in other sports. One wanted to be a dolphin trainer. Almost all of them listed math and science as their favorite school subjects, and considered things with words, like English and social studies, to be drudgery.
The cars these builder-children make are eye-catching, and with the pinstriping and the fine lettering that proclaims the name of the driver and the sponsor—everything from banks, bars, newspapers and malls to grandpa—and other product stickers, they look like miniature Indy cars.
Unfortunately, the cars are most appealing in repose. The All-American itself—the race—is a bore. Oh well, nobody ever said Mom's apple pie was good. They just said it was Mom's, clean your plate. Watching three little cars rolling down a hill, one heat after another after another, is like watching weeds grow.
The good people of the Rubber City are only too aware of this truth, so that the spectator ranks are formed almost entirely of family, vanquished champs and drum-and-bugle corpsmen. Chevrolet got around this little fly in the ointment by, uh, gilding the lily. Eighty thousand! One hundred thousand! Largest crowd ever!
Bob Troyer, the Firestone p.r. director who helps out the All-American Soap Box Derby (the organization has a salaried staff of only three and a total annual budget of $400,000), says that even with temporary stands it would have been impossible for there to have ever been more than 7,500 seats or a total crowd of more than 25,000 spectators at the All-American.
One Hundred Thousand was an amiable myth, and nobody in the Rubber City questioned it, anymore than anyone but a curmudgeon would challenge the celebrity credentials of Wixted. (When I gave in and asked, I learned that he is the ail-American football captain on ABC's sitcom Growing Pains.) Or, as Mayor Don Plusquellic (A Plus for Akron) was saying the night before the 1987 All-American, "It's always great when the eyes of the world are on Akron."
Alas, since Chevrolet pulled its p.r. legions out, this is not quite the case anymore. The All-American doesn't make any of the TV sports anthologies (which appear to cover anything else that moves), and the day after the big race you might not find a single word about it in the newspapers of New York or Los Angeles or Miami. Since two Connecticut kids happened to win last year, that earned a tiny paragraph in The Boston Sunday Globe under this little headline: MISCELLANY: N.E. BOYS WIN SOAP BOX DERBY
But Akron put on a dandy parade the night before. The streets were spotless, the crowds appreciative. Turner, the first champion, was the honorary parade marshal, and there were scores of drum-and-bugle corps.
Not only that, but the next morning out at Derby Downs, there was a truncated version of the same parade all over again. I enjoyed it every bit as much the second time. Parades are swell, wherever they are. Because all the politicians want to be in them, somebody other than a politician must run them.
Soon it would be time for the golden anniversary All-American, 91 heats. Flags lined the 953'9", 11% incline. There were many banners, such as NORTHERN BATHROOM TISSUE. Across the finish line, a banner proclaimed HELPING YOUTH TODAY FOR TOMORROW and ADVENTURE IN SPORTSMANSHIP AND SKILL.
The programs were free. Linda, the yo-yo lady, was in a silver-sequin outfit, with green, red and gold.
Soon it was clear that Lane 3 was the favored path. Evidently, the sun was hitting it right.
But the photo-finish camera didn't always work. It had to be fixed, because with so many identical kit cars, there were going to be a lot of photo finishes. "We're trying our best," the public-address announcer explained. But this meant that up at the starting line the children had to wait, sweating in their coffinlike cars. This was especially true of the seniors, who lie on their backs in their racers, the better to cut wind resistance. It also cut their air supply, and the starters were kept busy fanning the champs to keep them from fainting.
The big concern at the bottom of the course was emotional stress. "Counselor! Counselor!" the cries would go up when one of the losers appeared exceptionally upset, and at that, a designated comforter from the Camp Y-Noah staff would dash over. All of the losers were escorted to the Champs' Box near the finish line, and there they milled about, getting consoled by their parents, who stuck fingers through a wire fence, like in the prison movies. Almost nobody watched the winners race on, heat after heat.
Kimberly Rickard went out in the first round, but her brother, Jason, won a heat. So did Alethia Cline, Big Al. But eventually Jason and Big Al were also eliminated.
As the climax neared and the tension mounted, more and more spectators left. The heats came so fast and furiously—each lasting about 27 seconds and change—that the results of some close races were announced after another race had been run. As a consequence, a great deal of the drama was dissipated—not to mention that a lot of people got mixed up.
In the finals of the junior division, Matthew Margules, a little blond boy from Newtown, Conn., the same leafy hamlet that sent Bruce Jenner out into the world, raced in Lane 1. When one of the officials heard the P.A. declare Lane 3 the winner, he picked up that boy and hugged him, as Matthew started tearing up. Only, that Lane 3 victory announcement was for some earlier consolation heat, and it took awhile before everybody figured out what race was what, and then they announced 11-year-old Matthew the winner of the junior division. The other little lad, who had victory snatched from him, handled it remarkably well, as Matthew went off to collect his power tools.
Matthew's father, Richard, is good with his hands, of course. A surgeon. This was the third car they had built together, Dad Margules and his son. After the victory, Dad picked up Matt and held him high, as if he were the trophy.
A little later, after a few more people had left, Brian Drinkwater, 14, from Bristol, Conn., home of ESPN, won the senior division and the grand prize, a $5,000 scholarship. Mom Margules had not journeyed to the Rubber City, but Mom Drinkwater was there with Dad Drinkwater, and she clasped her bouquet of red roses. Then Brian was escorted over to meet grand marshal Bob Turner, who seemed on the verge of tears himself.
No matter how long you live, it's always neat to have been a big deal one day long ago in August when you were in Boydom and your father had cleaned his fingernails for the occasion and then you made him the proudest Dad in all the land.