The All-American Soap Box Derby, the Depression-born race that initially was the sole domain of boys who pieced together their street machines from scraps off dad’s workbench, has gone through some changes.
Your daddy’s Oldsmobile may be out of production, but your grandfather’s motorless soap box car still pokes along in kit form - especially in Arlington, where Cary Conrad, a 55-year-old electrical engineer, has worked tirelessly in recent years to revive a sport that was once as much a part of Americana as a ’57 Chevy.
“I’m trying to give the sport a shot in the arm,’’ said Conrad, who cobbled together his own soap box car for a race on July 4, 1969, only to be eliminated on a single run down a hill in Highland Park, Ill. “Actually, if you look at the big picture, it’s less about racing than it is about getting the kids to put the cars together and connect with the machines they are going to race. When you build a soap box car, your brain is around every piece when you take it down that hill. There are some things you just don’t get from Lego.’’
With Conrad aided by an assembly line of volunteers, the town’s fourth soap box derby will be staged June 2 along Eastern Avenue. Nearly 40 boys and girls, ages 7-17, will begin racing in three divisions (stock, superstock, and masters), each one of them aiming to compete in the Derby’s 75th anniversary race July 21 in Akron, Ohio.
Two weeks prior to the big day in Arlington, more than a dozen newbie soap boxers reported for test runs on an asphalt track tucked away in the Sheepfold area of the Middlesex Fells Reservation just north of Boston. On a beautiful sunlit day, the make-believe Andrettis and Earnhardts, typically accompanied by at least one parent or grandparent, carted their cars to the top of the hill and piloted their prized machines down the track.
“Oh, my God, it was so cool!’’ said an overjoyed Kelsey Roy, an 11-year-old fifth-grader from Bishop Elementary in Arlington, after her first test run. “And it was so fast.’’
Roy wanted to try it last year, but had to wait until her grandfather, Russ Sherriff, could help her reassemble one of the car kits she rented from Conrad. The kit, said Sherriff, is very detailed and fairly easy to follow, but took well over the suggested assembly time of six hours.
“So many things you have to do,’’ said Sherriff. “Picking it up, putting it together, sanding, painting, repainting. And the brake thing is a little complicated.’’
Ten-year-old Olivia Shirley, a fourth-grader at Morse Elementary in Cambridge, was surprised how “gritty and loud’’ it was when she put on the brake under the watch of finish line flagman Dan Brennan. But overall, Shirley enjoyed both the racing and the building process, which she did with help from her father, Frank.
An architect, the senior Shirley was a soap box kid in the late-1970s, growing up in Warren, Ohio, and went on to finish seventh in the senior division in the big race at Akron in 1978.
“Still one of the high points in my life,’’ said Shirley, “It took me something like 300 to 500 hours to build it, all custom, and I learned to work with tools . . . that stuff stays with you.’’
Shirley’s two children, Olivia and son Elias, 8, will compete in the Arlington race. One or both could be headed to Akron, following in the old man’s soap box ruts.
The Soap Box Derby was the brainchild of Myron E. “Scottie’’ Scott, a photographer for the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, who in 1933 stumbled across three young boys racing their homemade cars down a brick street in suburban Dayton. With Scott’s ingenuity and promotion, a crowd of some 40,000 viewers later that same year lined up at city’s edge to see 362 racers participate in a similar race. An all-American event was born. In tandem with Chevrolet, the country’s four large tire manufacturers - Firestone, Goodrich, Goodyear, and General - soon headquartered the event in Akron. Other than a four-year hiatus (1942-45) during World War II, the race has been staged every year since.
Girls were added to the card in Akron in 1971, and in recent years they have dominated nationally. In fact, girls have swept all three divisions at the national championship each of the last three years.
“I don’t know how to explain that,’’ mused Conrad, a father of three boys (Miller, Campbell, Alec) and a girl (Katrina), all of whom will race June 2. “Girls are usually more focused, so I think that has something to do with it.’’
Interest began to wane considerably in the early-’70s when Chevrolet, citing changing interests in America’s youth, pulled out as a title sponsor. Almost concurrently, an embarrassing cheating scandal, with one Akron competitor fitting his car with an electromagnet to gain an advantage off the start line, ultimately forced race administrators to mandate the use of the kit cars.
Bob Barnes, a 48-year-old mechanical engineer from Hopkinton, is one of the area’s dyed-in-the-wheel drum soap box devotees. He owns multiple cars and his sons have competed in races around the country, chalking up impressive finishes in Akron. Originally from Peabody, Barnes, whose father and uncle were soap box competitors, raced in the ’70s. He chuckles a little over the memory of once fitting his car with a linoleum skin, the sport in those days encouraging imagination.
“A lot of the ingenuity has been dummied out of it now,’’ lamented Barnes, sharing with a visitor at Fellsway a 1948 photo that showed his dad and uncle sitting in soap box cars that each had hubcaps as steering wheels. “These kits are great, but it’s not the same - it’s kind of like putting together a gas grille from the hardware store.’’
Conrad began dreaming of a race in Arlington around 2005 and needed roughly three years to build enough support to stage the first race on Eastern Avenue in 2009. Without the backing of the likes of Mirak Chevrolet, Armstrong Ambulance, the Arlington Police Department, residents along Eastern Avenue, and scores of others, he figures, it never would have come to fruition. Kids pay $75 to rent the car kits and another $75 as an entrance fee. All fees are waived in cases of financial hardship.
No one on race day in Arlington, insists Conrad, gets fewer than five runs down the hill. All because he remembers the work and dreams he put into his own car in ’69, and the disappointment he felt when he was one and done.
Coming up short that one day, he figures, is part of what rekindled his derby dreams some 40 years later.
“I can’t even tell you exactly why I’m doing this,’’ said Conrad. “Just something I always wanted to do again. I suppose if I put my Freud hat on, who knows . . . maybe I’m just trying to get another shot.’’