On a slow Sunday afternoon two small, brightly painted fiberglass cars glide silently down an asphalt track. You could easily mistake the helmets of the drivers for parts of the cars — they are the same color, the drivers make no movement and their helmets seem to fit into the bodies of the cars like pieces of Lego.
Indianapolis region qualifying races will be held Saturday, June 21.
The smells of gasoline and burning rubber are distinctly missing. There are no scantily clad pit girls holding up signs promoting a brand of beer. There is, however, an ice cream van lurking at the end of the track pumping out a distinctive version of “Pop Goes the Weasel.” In fact, the sparse crowd seems more intent on concentrating on their ice creams than the race taking place before their eyes. The cars, one adorned with a large “Tweetie Bird” sticker, speed beneath a walkway spanning the track with an upside down “finish” sign on it. An electronic buzzer echoes across the park and a loudspeaker cuts in with the result of the race. “Melanie hangs on to her lead of .065 seconds. Congratulations, Melanie.” Thin gray smoke billows from the rear of one of the cars as the brakes are engaged. As if from nowhere the drivers emerge from their cars and lift up the front of their vehicles to tow them back to pit lane. “Well done, good race,” an observer calls to the two pre-teen-age drivers in between mouthfuls of ice cream. “Well done to both of you.” This is Soap Box Derby racing. Soap Box Derby history Originating in Ohio during the Great Depression, the name Soap Box Derby was coined by Myron Scott, a photographer for the Dayton Daily News. In 1933, Scott noticed three boys in homemade, engine-less cars racing down a hill. The photographer encouraged the boys to return a week later with their friends to compete in a race. About 20 boys turned up and the race was a success. With sponsorship from his newspaper, Scott organized an even larger race with a $200 prize. Not surprisingly, the event attracted numerous participants, and on Saturday, Aug. 19, 1933, a field of 362 boys raced in cars made from scrap in front of an estimated 40,000-strong crowd. The following year a national championship was inaugurated and held in Akron, Ohio. Soap Box Derby has a long history in Indiana. In fact, Indianapolis and Dayton, Ohio, are the only two places where Soap Box Derby has been run every year since its creation. Located at 30th Street and Cold Springs Road, the Indianapolis track is the longest track in the country, measuring 1,000 feet. It was built in 1953 to replace the original track at 71st and Meridian. A laser timer, digital weighing system, new scorer’s bridge and new pit area were all added in the last three years. According to the director of the Indianapolis Soap Box Derby Association, Ford Wilson, the 30th Street track is one of the finest in the country. “But we are still trying to place the last piece of that puzzle — a building that will allow the kids from the housing authority in at-risk neighborhoods to have a safe haven to work on their cars,” he says. Wilson and his supporters have already found half of the required $200,000 costs from local businesses. “We have a plumbing contractor who is willing to give us $40,000 of plumbing, heating and air conditioning,” he says. “We also have an engineering company that has supplied us with $50,000 of drawings and plans. “Soap Box Derby can be an expensive sport.” Long gone are the days where children would steal wheels from baby carriages to complete their scrap racers. Today’s Soap Box racers are fiberglass, relatively expensive and made to exact specifications for each of the three racing categories — Stock, Super Stock and Masters. Prior to each qualifying race, each car is stripped and inspected for the exact correct structure. Soap Box Derby enthusiast Steve Palmer explains: “It costs about $500 and eight hours work to build a Stock car,” he says. “But this goes up to about $2,000 and 40 hours work to build a Masters car.” Cars are digitally weighed prior to each race to ensure there is no variation from the official weights — 200 pounds for Stock, 230 for Super Stock and 255 for Masters. “We have to weigh them again in case the kids go to the bathroom and lose a few pounds in between races,” Palmer says. “Even those few pounds make a huge difference.” Fairness is the name of the game. Drivers will race each other twice, exchanging wheels with each other between races to negate any possible advantage. “Basically it comes down to the skill of the driver,” Palmer says. “Races are won by fractions of a second, as little as one-sixteenth of an inch in length.” On an overcast day, Masters cars can hit speeds of around 26 mph on the 30th Street track. On hot days that speed goes up to 30 mph. On other tracks around the country that figure can be as high as 50 mph. One of Indiana’s best drivers is Bloomington’s 16-year-old Caitlin Wild. Wild is not only ranked seventh in the world, but is also legally blind. In the purple car she named “7M,” Wild is the hot favorite to win this Saturday’s Indianapolis region final. A winner in each of the car categories will then compete in the World Championships, held in Akron, Ohio, in July. More than 350 drivers from the USA, Japan, Germany and China will compete in front of a 15,000 strong crowd. “Indianapolis has placed in the top eight positions every year for the last 10 years, but hasn’t had a winner since the early 1970s,” Wilson says. “It would be great to see one of our underprivileged kids qualify this year. But Caitlin Wild will probably win it. She is an amazing girl.” Supporting underprivileged kids The high price tag for Soap Box Derby racers does not necessarily rule out underprivileged children from competing. Because not all parents can afford the money needed to purchase and maintain a racer, sponsorship is essential. The Departments of Public Works, Indy Parks, Firefighters, Police and various unions are a few of the groups that put money into Soap Box Derby. The man behind the co-ordination of the sport for local underprivileged children is Indiana Housing Authority Maintenance Technician Supervisor Louis Davis. Davis says the IHA has eight cars to share between numerous underprivileged children, aged 9 through 18, who all adore the sport. “A lot of these kids are public housing kids from broken homes, a lot of their parents are on drugs,” he says. “The parents don’t give their kids the kind of attention they want, so this gives us an opportunity to work with them and give them some mechanical exposure. Building the cars is where they get the most fun. “We can’t give them all the guidance you would expect them to receive at home, but it does make a difference.” Davis says because they have so few cars and so many children who want to drive, selecting the lucky children is difficult. He chooses children who are well-behaved, do not skip school and who want to race. “We try to select them based upon their behavior,” he says. “The kids who are attentive, the kids that wanted to participate. “Some of them want to run off and play, but some others want to learn about the cars. They are the ones that will drive.” As a result, some children miss out on driving. Davis says a more satisfying aspect of Soap Box Derby on these kids is a change in their behavior. “One of the things we insist the kids do is show respect for the adults,” Davis says. “A lot of these kids we see in our public housing communities on a daily basis and a lot of them use a lot of profanity. When they get out on the track you can really see the change in their attitude, they simply want to compete. “I don’t know whether it’s a long-term affect or not, but when they are at the Soap Box Derby they are very respectful.” Inner Housing Authority employees who work in the program are all volunteers. And Soap Box Derby is a time-consuming sport. “If it weren’t for Louis Davis these kids would never have the opportunity to do something as fun as this,” Wilson says. “He has made a real difference in their lives and done an amazing job. Roger Penske thinks it’s tough to have two cars; Louis has to look after 10 or 12.” According to Wilson, the most important thing about Soap Box Derby is spending time with children. Unfortunately, he says, not enough parents want to do so. “If more parents were prepared to spend the time with their children we would have another hundred or so driving each weekend. Parents don’t spend as much time with their children nowadays.” Because his own children are too large to race Soap Box Derby, Davis is looking to pass on his role to someone else at the end of the season. Wilson, however, looks like he is staying with the sport for a while. “My granddaughter will be 7 this year and is anxious to try it,” he says. Does he care whether she wins? Not really. “You’re a winner for building your car and making the commitment to get it done,” he says. “If you do well in your race maybe you will get to go to Akron. If you don’t, you are still a winner.” The Indianapolis Soap Box Derby race track is located on the corner of 30th Street and Cold Springs Road. The Indianapolis region qualifying races will be held on Saturday, June 21 from 9 a.m. to about 6 p.m. Spectator entry is free. For more details call Ford Wilson at 844-3770, or visit www.geocities.com/indysbd/.