A letter from the derby's first champion:
March, 15th 2004
The year was 1934, long before you reader's were born.
The leader of Germany in those days was Von Hindenburg. He was the last German leader to stand in the way of Adolph's Hitler's rise to power that helped to bring on World War II.
Hindenburg died and was front page news in the Youngstown Vindicator and another paper then known as the Youngstown Telegram. Ah, but I also made the front page...I won a brand new contest for young boys known as the "Soap Box Derby".
I was a 15 year old newspaper carrier and, of course, saw the beginning article in the papers I was carrying. I didn't have any idea what the soap box derby was going to be but I did have a race car that I had built. I entered the race.
My car that I built was really a pile of wood on wheels. I used wheels and axels off of an old wagon that I had. I got a big long plank someplace and built the car from there. I used a "broom stick" steering column and a Chevrolet steering wheel that I got from a junk man. I turned the wheels, to steer, with a clothes line wrapped around the steering column and to the front wheels. Incidentally, it took awhile for me to figure out that I had to cross the clothes line to the wheels to get them to turn the right way. The brakes were an old piece of truck tire that I nailed to a block of wood, hinged so I could push it to the ground with my foot to stop. It wasn't much but I had lots of fun with it long before the Soap Box Derby came up. I zipped down any hill I could find lots of times.
The "Derby" (as it was known) was lots of fun. Lots of kids with piles of wood on wheels just like me, were in the races. The races were run pretty much like they are probably run today except that everything was very simple. For example: Men held the cars at the start and let go on signal. This made a little bit of difference in that some cars had a slight head start; not intentional, of course. (I think this happened to me against Bobby Harris in 1935 when I finished second. It was close one but he won and deserved it. He had nothing to do with the start.) The only two rules as I remember it, were that the car could not weigh more than 250 pounds with the driver in it. And the car had to be 4 inches off the ground.
Except for a "fat kid" none of us came close to the weight. Since most of us had wagon wheels or small bicycle wheels there was no problem with the 4 inches. There were other rules, I am sure, but we were all young and excited. The adults did what they thought was necessary to make the race as fair as possible.
The race was handled by the fire department people and the police department. In my "victory" run after the races was over, I had a police car right beside me and was clocked at just under 40 miles and hour at the finish line. The race was much longer than today.
We started, I think at 5th Ave. to Logan. It was long, I know, and we were two of us side by side have a ball. Some cars wrecked. No one got hurt as I recall but the adults realized we were in danger and shortened the race course in later years.
The National was held in Dayton, Ohio (in 1934) on a steep hill just like Youngstown. I didn't do well. A cameraman came out on the track to take a picture of us coming down the hill. He didn't get out of the way and I spun out into the curb trying to avoid him. They repaired my car but it was to no avail. It was damaged too badly. I am sure that I would not have won anyway. I will always remember my trip to the National and how we were treated like the important kids we thought we were. It was just great. One of you will be there come July. I wish all of you the very best of luck.
I'm 85 now. 70 years from 1934. I grew up and went on with my life as you all will do. I assure you that you will never, ever, forget the "Soap Box Derby." I didn't.
God bless and keep you...