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This past June, racers, ages 8 to 17, took part in the 70th running of the Greater Washington Soap Box Derby. (Joe McCary, www.dcsoapboxderby.org)

The History of Soap Box Derby

For nearly 80 years, kids have steered their gravity-powered racers toward a coveted national championship

smithsonian.com

In recent years, however, soapbox derby has been struggling to shake its old-fashioned image. The Greater Washington Soap Box Derby, which has had stints on different hills throughout the city, was moved to Capitol Hill in 1991, in large part to gain more exposure. Congressman Steny Hoyer of Maryland is a loyal supporter, having sponsored the bill to allow the event to take place on Capitol grounds for 20 years now. “The soap box derby is not just a race,” he said on the House floor in 2009. “It is an enriching way to engage our youth, and teach them the importance of ingenuity, commitment and hard work.” And yet, this year, the event’s officials scrambled to recruit 12 stock drivers, 12 super stock and six masters—the minimum number of racers in each division for it to count as a “local” and send three division winners to Akron. A couple of years ago, in an effort to make the All-American more relevant, its board considered adding a category at the world championship in which older kids raced wind- or solar-powered vehicles uphill.

Passionate families are keeping the sport alive. Rayle, for example, has never outgrown it. He first competed in the Greater Washington Soap Box Derby in 1978. His brother competed. His brother’s kids competed, and so did his own. “As a family, we’ve been to Ohio 21 times to race,” he says. Up until a couple of years ago, he and his family traveled the soapbox rally circuit, with his two kids competing in races within an eight-hour drive from D.C. almost every weekend. If racers accumulate 180 points by participating and placing in rally derbies, they too can go to Akron. In 2008, his daughter Courtney won the local derby and went on to beat competitors from around the world at the All-American. There is a YouTube clip of Courtney’s final race, and when she crosses the finish in first place, Rayle, as he puts it, “jumps up and down like a crazy man.” As if he needs to justify himself, he says, “That’s 40 years of anticipation there.”

“It’s like I tell all the guys at work,” says Rayle, a commander in the police department’s homicide unit in Prince George’s County, Maryland. “Have you ever been world champion of anything?”

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