Since 1936 the Soap Box Derby World Championships have been held in Akron, Ohio. This year will be no different as regional champions from all over the world will converge on the asphalt at Derby Downs from July 14-20. Much like their predecessors, these racers will be using gravity as their engines as they drive their home built cars down a hill.
I watched these cars being led into a building, so naturally, I had to follow. Inside I found Tim Dever, president of the Wayne-Holmes Soap Box Derby. Dever’s passion for this sport is undeniable. I caught him on, “impound day,” the day that all racers have their cars weighed, inspected and stored until June 22. That morning these cars will race down Benden Drive in Wooster, Ohio for an opportunity to represent the region in Akron this year.
“We track our times in thousandths of a second,” Dever told me. Immediately I realized this wasn’t some once a year hobby. These guys are serious and view themselves and the other racers as a bit of a family. Ohio is also a hotbed for Soap Box Derby, “You can race almost weekly within a 2 hour drive from here,” Devers informed me. Even in the winter, factories and warehouses will provide space to allow races to take place.
Dever does worry, as participants aren’t always easy to find. He finds that people aren’t getting their kids into Soap Box Derby because they fear the cost. “A Soap Box Derby car costs about as much as getting a video game system and a few games,” Dever added. In the interest of fairness, today’s Soap Box racers are sold as kits, that way everyone starts on level ground.
However, it isn’t quite as simple as putting the wheels on and shooting down a hill. In a sport where every thousandth of a second counts, fine-tuning these cars is a huge aspect of the most successful race teams. For example, Dever explained that adding a driver can cause a small bend in the axle causing the wheels to tilt. Experienced teams may pre-bend to their axle to compensate for their driver’s weight. Just a few millimeters can be the difference to cut those fractions of a second off of a racer’s time. A smooth track requires a different setup than a rough track. There is a remarkable amount of strategy that goes into these cars.
But don’t think that Soap Box Derby is just a glorified building competition. A well setup car is only part of it, the drivers are equally important. Racers from the ages of 7-20 can participate in these races. A good driver must learn to maximize every bit of momentum their track can provide. “If we race on a road that is crowned, an experienced driver will start his car towards the middle and try to quickly work towards the edge to allow the slope of the road to give them early momentum,” Dever explained.
But the part of Soap Box Derby that Dever enjoys the most is the fact that it turns families into racing teams. While the kids get the excitement of driving, the parents can gain a lot from helping build and maintain these cars. “When I started I knew nothing of bodywork,” Dever told me before pointing to his own immaculate racer that looked like Dale Earnhardt Jr. was about to drive it. He loves the fact that parents and children alike learn valuable DIY skills that can be used beyond the race track.
With several different classes of cars and even specialty cars designed for special needs drivers, Soap Box Derby can accommodate almost any family. For more information how to start your own family race team visit SoapBoxDerby.org for information, rules, schedules, and news. The Wayne-Holmes division can be visited on Facebook and is an incredibly active group, even offering weekly workshops where race teams can share tips and tricks with one another.
Soap Box Derby has been an Ohio tradition for decades. They always have room for more racers, volunteers, and fans. Maybe someday soon they can roll your child down a hill too.