Soap Box Derby Thrives in Video Game Age

Youngsters still build racers for the 75-year-old competition.

Aug. 3, 2008— -- It may not be flashy, computerized, or even very fast, but there are few pursuits more "American" than the All-American Soap Box Derby.

Over 500 racers from 43 states gathered in Akron, Ohio, recently to compete in the 71st annual racing event, where contestants age 8 through 17 race their non-motorized cars down a nearly 1,000-foot slope to win scholarships and merchandise prizes.

Aaron Hill, 12, answered succinctly when asked what he likes about racing.

"The part where you go down the hill," he said.

Young racers have been racing down the hill at the Derby Downs, this three-lane, cement-paved Ohio racing park, for over 75 years. Derbies have been held here annually since 1936, with the exception of World War II. Contestants don't use wooden soap boxes anymore, but sleek, colorful fiberglass racers that the kids put together from kits purchased directly from the Soap Box Derby.

As their cars waited for the metal starting barriers to drop last week, racers huddled in their small seats, ready to manipulate the brakes and steering contraptions below the hull. They wore helmets for protection as they swished down the hill.

Between heats, Matthew Miszewski, 12, gave a reporter an inside tour of his bright red racer, which had yellow flames painted on the side.

"You ... have your pulley system, which helps braking," Miszewski said, pointing to a thin metal wire strung along the base of his car. "There's also steering cable, right there, my main weights, front and rear axles."

With no computer mouse and no motor, the soap box might seem like a relic of the days of soda jerks and sock hops.

And, in fact, the derby has been struggling a bit in this Internet age. Gone are the days of stands packed with more than 50,000 spectators, as in 1936, when 15-year-old Herbert Muench of St. Louis took home the title. And rarely does the race make national headlines, as in 1952, when 11-year-old Joey Lunn from Thomasville, Ga., won the race, only to smash his car on the kickboards past the finish line. Lunn escaped with just cuts and bruises.

This year, an estimated 15,000 people came to watch. The race is having financial difficulties, and 2008 marks the first time in 10 years the derby has no corporate sponsor.

"It's a different world," said Soap Box Derby president and CEO Jim Huntsman, as racers sped by on the track nearby. "But not everybody's into computers and technology. We still have our niche in the world."

And plenty of kids still seem to revel in that niche.

"It's real life, it's not on a screen," said 8-year-old Katy Williams when asked why she'd rather race than play video games.

And while there's only one kid to a car, it's clear the derby is a family affair.

Matt Williams, Katy's father, said he probably has even more fun with soap box racing than his daughter does.

"As opposed to, like, soccer or other sports, where you're just cheering from the sidelines," Williams said, "it's you and your kid. Putting the car together, working on race day, putting it on the ramp. You're all a team."

Courtney Rayle, 16, of Washington, D.C., won top honors in this year's master category, the most advanced of three racing divisions. A 10-year racing veteran, according to local news reports, Rayle took home a gold trophy and $5,500 in scholarship money.