Ava Pell, 12, of Bristow, Virginia, climbs into her sleek soapbox derby car. She lies back as her father helps to tuck her long brown ponytail over one shoulder. He locks her white helmet into a nook in the back of the fiberglass car—painted a shiny eggplant and adorned with blue and pink flames—and closes the top hatch. Between the brim of her helmet and the top of her car is a quarter-inch slit. “It’s like looking through a crack in a fence,” says John Luense, one of the event’s officials. Ava’s father holds up two fingers near the nose of the car to test her visibility.
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“Ready in Lane 1?” the starter asks Ava’s competitor, enclosed in a pearlescent car with a galaxy of blue stars suspended above its front wheels. “Ready in Lane 2?” she says, looking to Ava. “Okay, on three. One… two… three.” The starter presses a hand trigger, and the paddles holding the cars in their ramps slap to the pavement. The racers are off. “Have fun!” she yells.
On this third Saturday in June, the 70th running of the Greater Washington Soap Box Derby is underway. Thirty racers, ages 8 to 17, competing in three divisions—stock, super stock and masters—are racing down Constitution Avenue, in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. The field in the double elimination tournament ranges from first-time drivers to seasoned veterans, and all have their eyes on the prize—the title of “local” champion, and an all-expenses-paid trip to Akron, Ohio, to compete against top racers from around the world at the All-American Soap Box Derby on July 23.
As some of the grandparents in attendance can attest, the Washington, D.C. derby is nearly as old as the sport itself. In 1933, Myron Scott, a photographer for the Dayton Daily News in Ohio, came across three boys racing hand-made, motorless cars down a local hill. Tickled by the sight, he invited the boys to come back a week later, with friends, and he would officiate a more formal race. Nineteen hardscrabble racers showed up. Feeling encouraged, Scott approached his editor. “My boss agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to let me promote a race,” Scott once told a reporter. With $200 from the paper, he hosted a larger derby in Dayton on August 19, 1933. A total of 362 kids brought cars with chassis made of fruit crates and scrap wood propped up on wheels pilfered from baby buggies and roller skates. According to police estimates, 40,000 people gathered to watch the spectacle.
The success of Scott’s inaugural race prompted Editor & Publisher, a monthly magazine focused on the newspaper industry, to run a story, and newspapers across the country took Scott’s lead, sponsoring their own soapbox races. In April 1938, the Washington Star announced in its back pages that it and the American Legion were sponsoring the first derby in the nation’s capital. In daily articles, the newspaper covered the race’s rules and tips for building a car, while schools incorporated car construction into their wood shop curriculums. On July 23, 224 boys showed up to race a stretch of New Hampshire Avenue. Fourteen-year-old Norman Rocca of Southeast D.C. won and advanced to the fourth-annual All-American Soap Box Derby at Akron’s Derby Downs, a three-lane, 1,100-foot-long racetrack, complete with stadium seating, that was built in 1936 by the Works Progress Administration, an arm of President Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The sport sailed into its heyday in the late ’40s, 50s and 60s. Boys’ Life magazine reported in May 1959 that about three million people witnessed or took part in some form of derby activity each year, whether it was one of over 160 local derbies or the All-American, which drew 75,000 spectators alone. As the official sponsor of the All-American, Chevrolet distributed wheels, axles and rulebooks at their dealerships and awarded college scholarships to top finishers.
The two soapbox cars in the National Museum of American History’s collection show how the sport has evolved. Twelve-year-old Connecticut native Robert Pusateri spent hundreds of hours building and sanding his wooden soapbox car, painting it baby blue and scrawling the name of his sponsor The Hartford Times on its side, before he raced it in the finals at Akron in 1961. But, today, cars, much like “Lightning Laura,” a fiberglass car, also in the museum’s collection, which carried Laura Shepherd, a teenager from Ohio, to a fourth-place finish at the 1995 All-American, are built from kits that cost anywhere from $430 to $465 and take just four to six hours to assemble. (Girls started competing in the 1970s. The museum actually has the helmet worn by Karen Stead, the first girl to win the All-American in 1975.)
A week prior to the Greater Washington Soap Box Derby, officials inspected the racers’ cars. Driver included, stock cars must weigh 200 pounds; super stocks, 230 pounds; and masters, 255 pounds. On race day, each heat consists of two trips down the hill. For the sake of fairness, the two racers swap lanes and wheels after the first run. “It’s important,” says Bill Rayle, whose family has been involved in the derby for the past 40 years. “They learn how to play by the rules.”
For the kids, it is all about the speed. On Constitution Avenue, the cars can reach 25 miles per hour. “I like going down the hill and feeling the wind on my face on a really hot day,” says Jessie Crowley, 11, of Crownsville, Maryland. Her super stock car is painted an orange and black tiger print. When Brandon Sorli, 13, of Waldorf, Maryland, is at the start line, he says, “I usually just clear my head and think about racing.”
Rayle, a volunteer official, convinces me that I ought to try it, and I soon find myself crouching low in a bright blue car with a single white star on its hood, facing off against Jim Hagan, the regional director of soapbox derbies. I’ve been told that a good driver steers the car down the hill, as water would flow down it. “See that dark seam in the road?” says Rayle. “Just straddle it.” I am so concentrated on staying the course and then skidding to a stop after the finish, that I am only pretty sure that I won. It is a rush, and I can see why the kids are so enthusiastic.