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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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.


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