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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.

Races today are held at Derby Downs, an appropriately Art Deco setting-it was created in 1936 as part of a WPA project. The track has three lanes, each ten feet wide, bounded by grandstands that seat 8,000 people. It is 953.9 feet from the current starting line at the top of the hill to the finish line, which is spanned by a magnificent bridge where race officials wait and photo finishes are recorded. The slope starts at 11 percent, easing off to a gentle 1 percent at the end. The speed record is held by Tommy Fisher, who covered the 953.9 feet in 26.30 seconds.

Early winners kept coming back as fathers, then as grandfathers. Crowds grew. The Derby became Akron's greatest annual show. It shut down entirely during World War II but came back strong in the late '50s and '60s. In 1972 Chevrolet-after awarding a total of $1.7 million in scholarships to Derby contestants over the years-withdrew its sponsorship in favor of other events, including America's Junior Miss pageant and the Junior Olympics. These events, it said, were more in keeping with changing American lifestyles.

Then Soap Boxers were hit with scandal. The 1973 winning car had in its nose a secret electromagnet activated by the driver, which helped him get off fast from behind the metal starting gate. The driver was caught because in successive heats, as his magnet battery ran down, the car's speeds got inexplicably slower and slower.

This happened at the time of Watergate, which encouraged editorialists to draw all sorts of demoralizing parallels. "An enduring symbol of boyhood and purity," lamented the Washington Star, "became overnight just another embarrassing manifestation of the win-at-any-costs syndrome."

But the Derby soon worked its way back to respectability. It was in the 1970s that girls first began competing. In 1975 Karren Stead became the first girl to win, driving with her left arm in a cast. Past champions have boasted of putting as many as 1,500 hours' work into a single racer. However, recognizing that not all families have unlimited time for constructing a car, the Derby has made some competitions easier by creating three racing categories.

The first is "Stock." The car has to be built from a kit that costs $235 and can be assembled in four hours. The next is "Superstock," with a kit that costs around $275 and takes eight hours to put together. In the "Masters" category, contestants can buy a kit or build their own car from scratch at costs ranging upwards of $500. These can be sit-up or lie-down cars. Most of the youngsters who enter the Masters contest build their own, and three-quarters of these build needlenose cars in which the driv-ers lie down during the race.

Even so, last year's Masters winner was 13-year-old Danielle Del Ferraro, who did it the old-fashioned way, sitting up in a racer she built from scratch.

In Soap Box circles, Danielle is likely to be remembered for a long, long time. In 1994 she became the first two-time winner in the history of the Derby; she had also won the Kit Car championship the year before. Tiny and slender- 5 feet 1 and 96 pounds when she raced last summer-Danielle designed and built her car, the "Double D," with the help of her father, a professional cabinetmaker. It was made of wooden strips glued side by side, then covered with fiberglass that took many hours of highly skilled sanding to make really smooth.

Experts like A. C. (Tony) DeLuca, the Derby's executive director, notes that there are all sorts of tricks to racing soapbox cars. "Wheel alignment is important," he says. "So is knowing how to distribute your weight. You also have to learn the hill you're going to race on."

Some racers believe it helps to scream or hum loudly on the way down to mitigate against vibrations and give a smoother, steadier ride. For years it was commonly believed that black cars ran faster-because they won in the '40s and '50s. Then white cars began to win.

Danielle agrees with DeLuca that steering and knowing the course are what matter most. "It looks easy," she says, "but one bad move at the wheel can lose a race. A lot of kids will end up hitting bumps and wandering off-line."

She drove "sit-up," but the term is misleading. In a race, her father explains, "her helmet and eyes barely peep over the cockpit." To be able to do that, she did daily bending exercises from October to August so she could practically put her head between her knees to cut down on drag. "There are bumps and grooves on the track," Danielle says. "The wheel is hard to hold just right, and drivers who hit a bump and jerk the wheel are in trouble. One bad move can mean the race."

It took her four years to learn to drive well. "At first I held onto the wheel so tight that I got calluses on my hands. What I learned was, you had to hold just hard enough to take a bump and not move from a straight line."

Danielle's final run, which won the Masters Championship, took 28.81 breathless seconds. She crossed the finish line doing 32 mph. What did it feel like? "It's really amazing," she says. "You get tears in your eyes from the speed."

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