Gratuitous Color Shot #5: In which the universe reiterates its timeline for me

During the first few decades of the 20th century, fans across the U.S. experienced the secondhand thrill of automobile racing. Given the sport’s allure—and danger—it’s not surprising that enterprising children soon turned their monkey see, monkey do enthusiasm to creating their own speed demons.

The eventual result? Formalized soapbox derbies, full of gravity-powered, ostensibly youth-built contraptions that owed much of their momentum to scavenged wheels and repurposed lumber.

Credit for the first official derby seems to belong to one Myron Scott, photographer for the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News; in 1933, Scott stumbled onto a few kids racing down a neighborhood street and managed to convince his paper to fund an official race. [Boys-only, of course.] Before the 350-plus entrants and their motley assortment of homemade racers had crossed the finish line, onlookers were numbered at 40,000.

Then as now, capitalistic hearts sensed that tapping into childhood innocence could potentially spell profit.

Chevrolet was among the first of the big brands to realize how generous funding of soapbox strivers could carry its heartland-friendly image from coast to coast. But as derby fever invaded the nation’s nooks and crannies, kind-hearted and/or strategically minded local businesses jumped in as sponsors. Further afield, Canadians even got into the action; when a savvy British Columbia entrepreneur suggested hosting a derby to generate interest in the town’s new Strawberry Festival—and boost its waning strawberry industry—town leaders took the bait. [His idea worked. Oregon, are you listening?]

Though rocket ships eventually eclipsed cars in the Fantasy Travel game, the latter’s ubiquitousness helped soapbox races survive enormous periods of technological and social change.

Happily for many a young lass, however, derby tradition proved no match for the forces of feminism: in 1971, girls were finally permitted to build and race their own cars. And with her photo-finish victory in Akron’s 1975 All-American Soap Box Derby, Karen Snead became the first girl to win both a national championship and a hallowed spot in derby history.

Today, a charming number of youth put down their electronic gadgets long enough to create aerodynamic masterpieces. But in select cities and towns, grownups are allowed their own, segregated shot at bringing home a trophy. Many of the adults take the racing part of the competition extremely seriously and build for speed. Some, however…well, some (thankfully) don’t.

Adult Soapbox Derby design at work: Despite the 95+ degree day, the snowman mascot of “When Hell Freezes Over” kept his cool

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2 Responses

  1. Too funny! Back in 1975 our high school art class took part in the Artists’ Soap Box Derby in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Our entry was built from an antique bathtub, and christened “Myassis Dragon.” No, we didn’t win, but it was a really fun day.

  2. Pseu — I sure hope you have pics of that somewhere! I bet you had a blast; I know just watching the one I went to was loads of fun.

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