The third annual All-American Soap Box Derby in 1936 was a rollicking affair. Police estimated that 100,000 people gathered at Akron, Ohio’s brand new Derby Downs racetrack, which had been built expressly for the event. They were all there to watch as 115 boys from around the country compete to see whose four-wheeled creations was the fastest in all the land.
With a speedy run of 28.4 seconds, 14-year-old Herbert E. Muench Jr. from St. Louis dominated the 1,100-foot track and was named the winner, both in the All-American category and in the first ever international competition against Norman Neumann from South Africa. For his soap-box derby prowess, Muench was awarded a $2,000 college scholarship and “a warm kiss from his mother,” according to accounts of the race.
For over 80 years since then, this childhood sport has raced along, only pausing for a four year hiatus during World War II. While it has experienced more than its fair share of speed bumps, the soap box derby continues to this day in races all over the world that converge in one final showdown at Derby Downs in Ohio.
Rev Your Imaginary Engines and Let the Derby Begin!
The sport that would become an all-American institution began in the summer of 1933, when a photographer for the Dayton Daily News was tasked with taking pictures of kids at play. While on assignment, Myron Scott came across a group of boys racing cars made out of scavenged wood, paper cartons, and pilfered wheels down Big Hill Road in Dayton. He was so amused by what he saw that he offered to officiate a race the next week for the kids and their friends.
When nineteen boys showed up with their handmade cars, Scott knew he was on to something. With a donation from his paper, Scott organized and promoted a more official derby race in Dayton on August 19, 1933. When race day rolled around, 40,000 spectators were waiting to watch 362 participants—including two girls who had disguised themselves to compete in the “boys only” race—fling themselves and their makeshift automobiles down a local hill. Scott’s vision had come to life. Chevrolet offered to sponsor an annual event and, in 1934, the All-American Soap Box Derby officially debuted.
Scott would continue his association with the All-American Soap Box Derby, as well as go on to work for Chevrolet, where he was responsible for naming the Corvette. According to the lead in his New York Timesobit, he led a fairly all-American life of his own: “Myron E. Scott, an Ohio-born photographer who had such an uneventful career he probably wouldn’t have attracted much attention if there hadn’t been a couple of inspired blips in an otherwise satisfyingly humdrum life.”
A Racecourse of One’s Own
After spending two years racing down local hills in Dayton and then Akron, where the competition moved in 1935, it was clear the Soap Box Derby needed a permanent home of its own. With help from FDR’s Works Progress Administration, a new racetrack was built on the side of a hill in Akron and Derby Downs officially opened just in time for the 1936 competition.
Ever since then, the wee racers have met at Derby Downs each year to race their homemade creations. But it’s not just the racers who have come to see the show. Over the years, many celebrities have been drawn to the drama and the speed of the Soap-Box Derby. Jimmy Stewart attended the race six times, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon both made appearances in their pre-presidential days; and a slew of other celebrities including Rock Hudson, Tom Hanks, and the comic duo Abbott and Costello took their seats in the stands. In the early 1960s, at the height of the derby’s popularity, the official guest stars were an entire TV ensemble: the cast of Bonanza.
Trouble on the Track
Throughout the 20th century, the derby experienced its highs and its lows. The event peaked in popularity in the early 1960s, when the largest crowd in its history gathered at Derby Downs. In 1971, girls were allowed to participate for the first time (despite Scott’s alleged grumblings against this move), and the first female champion was crowned in 1975. The organization faced its first major cheating scandal in 1973, when it was discovered that the champion had placed a magnetic device in the nose of his car to help with his speed.
But it was the 1972 sponsorship withdrawal of Chevrolet that set the stage for the real troubles of the Derby. While other sponsors quickly jumped in to help, including major support from the city of Akron, none were as powerful as the all-American car dealer. In 2011, the Derby bottomed out when a loan for over half a million dollars was called in.
But the city of Akron once again stepped in and saved the day and, today, the All-American Soap Box Derby is alive and well.