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Know Ohio: How the Soap Box Derby Came To Be

Get ready for a ride! Gabriel zips through the history of the All American Soap Box Derby and how Akron became the place to race.

Class Discussion Questions:

1) Akron was nicknamed the “Rubber City” because of its involvement in the tire industry. What would be a good nickname for your town? Justify your answer.

2) Design your own soapbox derby car.

3) Compare and contrast the original soapbox derby cars to modern soapbox derby cars.

4) The first girls did not compete in the All-American Soap Box Derby until 1971. Pretend it is 1965 and write a letter to the organizers of the event to convince them to include girls.

Read the Script:

[Gabriel] Anyone else got the need, the need for speed? Well, it might be a few years until you can get your driver's license and join a NASCAR team, but there is another way you could try your hand at racing now. I'm talking about the All-American Soap Box Derby.

It was created in 1933 right here in Ohio. It began when Myron E. Scott, a photographer for the Dayton Daily News, took a photo of some boys racing down a hill in little homemade cars. Scott noticed the cars both had been built using soap crates and had four wheels. So he dubbed the race a soap box derby.

Scott thought organizing the races could be a fun event, and so he talked to his boss and to sponsoring a series of soap box derbies during the summer of '33, as well as another race the following year. More than 300 children came up to participate along with 40,000 people that came to watch the 1934 race.

[Announcer 1] But wait until you see the other entrants in the 1935 derby. There'll be everything from cracker boxes to cheese boxes on wheels. Only a few short weeks until the starter's gun bangs away.

[Gabriel] This gained the attention of the General Motors Chevrolet division, and they agreed to sponsor an annual event. With the sponsorship came a change in location for the race.

Fine by the residents of Dayton, who were a bit annoyed by the first race's disruption, the city of Akron lobbied to host the annual event and won. It was a good fit since Akron is called the Rubber City because of their involvement in tire production.

The first race in Akron took place on Tallmadge Avenue in 1935. One year after moving the races to Akron, both Chevrolet and the city of Akron believed that a permanent track to hold the derby races was needed.

[Announcer 2] Maybe you'd like a ride down the track. All right, let's go.

[Gabriel] With the help of the Works Progress Administration, Derby Downs was built in 1936 in Akron. The Works Progress Administration, or the W.P.A., was part of President Roosevelt's New Deal program to help the country after the economic destruction caused by the Great Depression. The W.P.A. employed men without jobs to work on projects for the community. The W.P.A. even included artists to design posters like this one for the races. Pretty cool that the kid's races were able to create jobs and make people smile during some difficult years.

Since 1933, there have only been a few times when the races haven't taken place: a four-year hiatus during the Second World War and an early end to the 2019-2020 racing season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

And while it first started mainly as a sport for boys, the race opened up to girls in 1971, and it was only a few years later in 1975 when Karen Stead from Pennsylvania was the first girl to win the All-American Soap Box Derby.

Over the years, a few things have changed. The cars are not made from soapboxes, for one thing. They're carefully designed to meet race rules and go extra fast, but still no motors in the cars. It's all about using design and gravity going downhill to pick up speed. The Soap Box Derby has grown into a national and even international competition, but the final championship race still takes place at the All-American Derby in Akron.

So no need to wait for NASCAR. You can build your own soapbox derby car today.