The Soap Box Derby

The Soap Box Derby, a peculiarly American institution, thrives on the U.S. teenage passion for anything that has four wheels and goes fast-even if driven by gravity.

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Museum catalog item 318011.1 was built and raced in the finals at Akron in 1961 by Robert Pusateri. It was donated to the Smithsonian by his father.

The official catalog description for item 318011.1 is simply "Car, soapbox." It is painted blue and carries on its side the name of its sponsor, the Hartford Times. Fair enough for a museum catalog. But to the boy who built it-now in his mid-40s-this item was not just a car but a racer and a means of transportation to one of young America's dreams of glory.

This particular racer ran in the 1961 All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio. It was conceived early in the summer of 1960 by Robert Pusateri, then 11 years old. Robert had just lost a soapbox qualifier in Connecticut. His brother, Anthony, was about to race another car in Akron, but Robert was already deep into plans for 1961, the new "soapbox year."

By Columbus Day, though the only power tool Robert used was an electric drill, his new car had axle trees and floorboards roughed in. By Easter 1961, Robert and others had spent hundreds and hundreds of hours gluing, clamping and, especially, sanding and polishing the body to cut down drag.

By Derby rules the combined weight of racer and driver is limited. Because gravity is what drives soapbox cars and weight combats air resistance, competitors want to weigh in with their cars as close to the limit as possible. During the painstaking work of building the car and in the preliminary competitions to qualify for Akron, Robert had lost some weight. In order to compensate, he added heavier wood to the construction. "There is a lot of oak in that old car," he says today.

He took the Connecticut Championship and qualified for Akron. But he lost out in the nationals, perhaps because his car might have been crooked in the starting block. Soapboxes are delicately balanced; they race at speeds upwards of 30 miles per hour.

Each year the cars that win the finals stay in Akron and are put on display in the Soap Box Derby Hall of Fame-76 of them to date. Most trips to Akron, however, are round trips. So Robert brought the racer home, and in 1975 his father, Anthony Pusateri sr., donated it to the Smithsonian (currently it is not on display). It had then-and still has-great meaning to the family, particularly Robert. He went on to study engineering and became a manager in the Polaroid Corporation. Like many past Derby contestants, he is convinced the discipline and effort that went into the racer helped him choose-and become a success in-his profession.

Since the Soap Box Derby got its start in the depths of the Great Depression, the story of Robert's racer, and its disappointing round trip to Ohio, has been repeated thousands of times. In 1933 a photographer named Myron Scott was photographing three boys, each sitting in a cratelike frame fixed to baby-buggy wheels, rolling down a bumpy hill in Dayton. Scott invited the boys to come back a week later and bring their friends-for a bigger race. Nineteen racers came. A considerable crowd gathered. One of the contestants was a local 12-year-old named Bob Gravett, who had painted the number 7 on his car-it was the easiest number to draw, he explained. An image of Old No. 7 has been used ever since on the official Soap Box Derby logo.

By late summer of 1933 Scott's races were drawing hundreds of cars and their young drivers, and up to 40,000 spectators. The official Soap Box Derby began the next year in Dayton with 34 winners of local races from all over the Midwest pitted against one another. In 1935 the competition moved to Akron because the publisher of the Akron Beacon-Journal promised the Derby's first sponsor, Chevrolet, that it would build a permanent track.

Scott's creation was a peculiarly American institution. Part spin-off from automobile racing and part spin-off from downhill sledding on Flexible Flyers, it thrived on the passion of teenage boys for anything that has four wheels and flies-if only down a hill under the power of gravitational pull. The racers soon moved beyond orange crates and the rickety wooden soapboxes that gave the race its name. The winning racer in 1934, steered by Bob Turner of Muncie, Indiana, was built from laminated wood taken from a saloon bar. By the mid-'60s many cars looked like torpedoes, and some were driven lying down to lessen wind resistance.


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