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It's All Downhill Gravity rules when the U.S.'s fastest kids roll into AKRON for the unsinkable Soap Box Derby

Aug. 04, 2003
Aug. 04, 2003

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Aug. 4, 2003

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It's All Downhill Gravity rules when the U.S.'s fastest kids roll into AKRON for the unsinkable Soap Box Derby

While editor of the National Lampoon in the late 1970s,
Toledo-born satirist P.J. O'Rourke published a newspaper parody
that tweaked the provincialism of his home state. By conflating
the towns of Dayton and Akron, he came up with the Dacron
Republican-Democrat, a distillation of all things Ohio. A Page
One headline screamed TWO DACRON WOMEN FEARED MISSING IN VOLCANIC
DISASTER. The quieter subhead: Japan Destroyed.

This is an article from the Aug. 4, 2003 issue Original Layout

Only a Buckeyes fan would consider the Buckeye State to be the
center of the sporting universe. Yet, in the wee world of kiddie
car racing, that's what Ohio is. Since 1934 the state has been
home to the All-American Soap Box Derby, a Dayton-born,
Akron-raised throwback to the roseate years when sports were fun
and games.

This Indy of the eight-to-17-year-old set--known as the Gravity
Grand Prix--is held on a 989-foot downhill track that ends just
short of the University of Akron's football stadium. The cars
look nothing like the homemade soapboxes-on-wheels that gave the
race its name; today's racers are sleek fiberglass models that
are built from $500 kits and reach a speed of about 30 mph. Kids
love the ride, though 11-year-old Michelle Rich of Perrysville,
Ohio, one of 432 racers on hand last Saturday for the 2003
finals, admitted, "It would be even funner if the cars had
motors."

Over the years the race has survived financial hardship,
skateboards, Nintendo and even cheating scandals--another of
which cropped up on Saturday, when for the first time in 30 years
a winner was disqualified. Wilton Blakely, 13, of Huntersville,
N.C., champion of the rally stock category, was stripped of his
title after his car was found to have two violations that might
have given it extra stability and better steering. There was glue
or epoxy holding a rear-axle pin in place and a steel bearing
(instead of a penny or quarter, as allowed by rules) at the base
of the steering assembly. Whether or not the infractions were
intentional was unclear; a race official said that Blakely's
father, who did most of the work in building the car, might
simply have misinterpreted Derby rules.

Such complexities were not envisioned when the Derby was born.
Seventy years ago, in the depths of the Depression, Dayton Daily
News photographer Myron Scott spied some kids with homemade
coaster cars and figured they would make a good picture. He also
figured it would be neat to organize a race for them. Nineteen
kids showed up, many with brightly painted cars cobbled out of
scrap metal and crates. When 362 kids and 40,000 spectators
showed for a second race that summer, the idea for a nationwide
Derby was hatched.

Back then, the All-American wasn't all-inclusive: The color
barrier wasn't broken until 1946, and girls weren't allowed to
compete until '71. (According to the book Champions, Cheaters and
Childhood Dreams, Derby pioneer Sandra Sosa was besieged by
reporters: "They asked things like, 'Are you planning on burning
your bra?'" she recalled. "'Well, yeah, if I had something to put
in it. I'm eleven.'")

The first Derby had entrants from 34 cities. A sixth-grader, Bob
Turner, took the $500 first prize. The pride of Muncie, Ind.,
wobbled to victory in a "soapbox" car made of galvanized steel,
wood from a saloon bar and buck-fifty wheels that fell off just
past the finish line. His buggy looked like the Civil War
battleship Monitor and weighed about as much.

In 1935 the All-American moved to Akron, hub of the tire
industry. New rules limited the weight, size and cost of the
cars. Though adult supervision was permitted, all labor was
supposed to be done by the kids. Boys who winced at the mere
mention of soap were suddenly into soapboxes.

During its heyday the race played on newsreels in movie theaters
across the country. Longtime sugar daddy General Motors pumped as
much as $1 million a year into the event, and celebrities such as
Jack Dempsey and Jimmy Stewart took part in the annual Oil Can
Trophy race before the kids' heats. In 1951 Ronald Reagan
finished second to ventriloquist Paul Winchell and his dummy,
Jerry Mahoney. The margin was slightly more than a wooden head.

Interest peaked in 1962, when the announced crowd of 75,000 made
the All-American the fifth-biggest sporting event in the world
that year. (Nowadays 15,000 is a good draw.) But the times, they
were a-changin'. "There was a lot of suspected adult
involvement," says David Mann, the '62 winner, from Gary, Ind.
"People started thinking kids really couldn't build these cars,
which wasn't true, though it was pretty impossible to stay under
the $35 cap on body parts."

The suspicions were borne out--rather spectacularly--at the 1973
running. James Gronen, a 14-year-old from Boulder, Colo., was
stripped of his title because his souped-up soapbox had a hidden
battery and electromagnet that gave it a swift pull forward when
the metal starting flap dropped. A Boulder court charged Gronen's
uncle, the car's designer, with contributing to the delinquency
of a minor. (A judge urged him to contribute the $2,000 fine to
the Boys Clubs.) "It was like learning the Ivory Snow girl made
blue movies," a district attorney later remarked. "It's like
seeing apple pie, motherhood and the flag grinding to a halt."
Faith had been broken in an American institution, and the Derby
has never fully recovered.

Just as damaging had been Chevrolet's decision, in 1972, to bail.
Since then, Derby funding has been patched together from small
sponsors. "For a while," says Mann, "I thought the event would
fade away." Last year organizers formed an alliance with NASCAR,
which brought in Home Depot as a backer. Still, the event depends
mostly on the kindness of volunteers, who work for the love of
soapbox racing and to have a little fun.

To draw bigger crowds, a vintage-car show was added this year. To
bring in more kids, the age bracket was expanded. (It had been
nine to 16.) The event now has three designs of cars, from simple
to complex, and three races each for regional winners and for
rally drivers, who engage in a months-long points competition.
Youths are no longer penalized if their parents do most of the
work, as long as the kids chip in. "I helped with some of the
screws," offered eight-year-old Aimee Johnson of Ashland, Kent.,
on Saturday.

"And she did all the waxing!" added her dad, Earl.

Like every other regional soapboxer, Johnson qualified for the
All-American by winning a local race. "We're all champs," said
Newport, R.I., super-stock champion Jacob Wigton, 11. "Some
champs are afraid racers in the other lanes are better than them
because they're champs, but they're forgetting about themselves
being champs."

On Saturday the competitors queued up, three abreast, to glide
quietly down Derby Downs in single-elimination heats that lasted
only about 29 seconds each. There was no strategy and little
driving skill involved. "There's nothing youngsters can do to get
faster," says Mann. "It's just, 'Oh, boy, here we go.' That's
discouraging to kids today."

The kids in Saturday's finals, however, seemed to have plenty of
fun. "I think the race is coming back," said 1953 champ Freddy
Mohler as he watched. "This is my 46th Derby, and every year I
see more kids, more cars, more fans." A small, frail retired
Muncie janitor, Mohler surveyed the half-empty stands and
declared, "I think the Derby will be as big as when I was in it,
maybe even bigger. Someday, it'll be the Number 1 sport in
America."

He smiled like a tyke in a toy shop. "I may not be here to see
it," he said, "but it'll get there."

For more about sports in Ohio and the other 49 states, go to
si.com/50.

COLOR PHOTO: THOMAS E. WITTE (SOAP BOX DERBY) [COVER FLAP INSET] 50TH ANNIVERSARY 1954-2004 SPORTS IN AMERICA 50 States in 50 Weeks THIS WEEK: OHIO Thrills and Controversy at The Soap Box Derby in Akron BY FRANZ LIDZCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY THOMAS E. WITTE ROLLER COASTERS An event that began with 19 entrants in 1933 featured six divisions and 432 racers last Saturday.B/W PHOTO: CARL MYDANS/TIME LIFE PICTURE/GETTY IMAGES (TOP) KIDS RULE NBC wanted a comment from runner-up Richard Ballard in 1938; Anthony Marulli donned one of the winners' yellow shirts this year.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY THOMAS E. WITTE [See caption above]
The first Derby champion wobbled to victory in a car made of
galvanized steel, wood from a saloon bar and wheels that fell off
just past the finish line.