Remember the excitement of building your first soap box derby car? You wanted everything to be just right. You picked a color that would stand out in the crowd so that your friends and family would be able to pick out your car. Dad would double check your car the night before the big race to make sure it was safe. This was a good thing because you knew that you were going to fly down that slope faster than everyone else.
Soap box derby racing was first organized by a Dayton, Ohio newsman Myron Scott who was motivated by a group of boys racing their homemade cars in the summer of 1933. If you have never seen a soap box derby car they are completely unpowered; no motor or petals. They are often a narrow wooden frame with a shape similar to a kayak. There is a small area for the driver to sit and steer the car. Weights in the front of the car help them gain speed as they race downhill.
Watching the children’s enjoyment in the races inspired Scott to acquire a copyright and search for a corporate sponsor so that children from all over the USA could compete in a race. Chevrolet was so impressed with the idea that they agreed to sponsor the first All American Soap Box Derby at Daytona in 1934. The following year it moved to Akron, Ohio because it was a more desirable location with many hills.
Chevrolet sponsored the Soap Box Derby’s until 1972 when the Akron Area Chamber of Commerce took over the program. In 1974 the Akron Chamber gave all rights to the program to the Akron Jaycees who established the International Soap Box Derby Inc., which continues to run it.
The Derby quickly gained international media attention in 1935 when an out of control car struck Graham McNamee, a popular radio announcer of the time.
Derby Downs, a permanent track was built in Akron, Ohio in 1936 with the help of the Works Progress Administration. Soap Box Derby’s have been held there every year except for a 4 year hiatus during WWII.
The popularity of the sport quickly spread and all across the country Soap Box Derby’s were held with the winners moving on to the nationals at Derby Downs in Akron.
It was popular here in Junction City also. On July 4, 1963 The Union estimated that 1,000 people lined East Sixth Street between Grandview Plaza and Junction City as boys raced homemade cars down a specially built 1,000 foot course to qualify for the National Soap Box Derby. The winner was 14 year old Dana Wolf.
Dana was awarded a $500 scholarship, a trophy, and the right to compete nationally on August 3 in Akron, Ohio. His trip was sponsored by the Junction City Optimist club. They purchased the car for $19.50, the amount Dana had spent to build the car. They also paid for its transportation to and from Akron. Dana traveled to Akron with his family, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Wolf, and his sister, Connie. Arriving in Akron the family was given a police escort, complete with sirens to Derby headquarters.
Dana and the other 238 contestants stayed in “Derbytown U.S.A.” while in Akron. The contestants came from 45 states and 6 countries. Entertainment was varied and included swimming, horseback riding, baseball and other games. On Friday evening the boys dinned with celebrities Arthur Godfrey, radio talk show host; Paul Anka, singer; John Russell, star of the television show Law Man; Paul Lynde, comedian; and Rock Hudson, movie star.
Saturday was Derby Day; it began with a big parade featuring all the racers in their race day uniforms, celebrities, and 61 bands. The races began later that day. Dana was defeated by a .03 of a second in the second round. His competitor was John Gaylor of Columbus, Ga. who was later beaten in the finals by Harold Conrad of Duluth, Minn.
Junction City is proud to have been represented by Dana Wolf at the National Soap Box Derby. His car, trophy, banner, and race wear have been donated to the museum. They are currently on display in our Play Time Exhibit in the auditorium. Stop by the museum Tuesday- Sunday from 1-4pm to view the exhibit and explore how “play time” has changed over the years.
For more information about the National Soap Box Derby visit: http://www.aasbd.org/.