GARDNER — The USA’s love of racecars and nostalgia played out again July 14 in Akron, Ohio, where more than 400 kids, including four from Massachusetts, barreled down a long, steep hill in the 75th rendition of the All-American Soap Box Derby.
Stan Hartshorn, only 10 years old at the time, was once one of those dreamers, thundering his bulky, bright-orange racer made of wood and tin down that same Derby Downs track in 1938. A kid from Nebraska City and another from White Plains narrowly edged Hartshorn at the finish line, and days later, after his long train ride east, a raucous crowd of some 400 awaited the smiling sprite upon his arrival at Union Station in Worcester.
“STAN HARTSHORN, JR., HOME FROM AKRON WITH TROPHIES, IS ACCORDED ROYAL WELCOME.’’
So heralded the lead headline on Tuesday evening, Aug. 16, 1938, in the Gardner News. The Camp Collier drum-and-bugle corps trumpeted his arrival. Politicians spoke of his glorious ride, a local kid finishing third in the big, All-American race, way out there in Ohio.
“Stan Jr.,’’ the Gardner News reported of his homecoming, “is the kind of lad to excite friendliness.’’
Young Stan was propped atop a Chevy convertible to better absorb it all, and state troopers helped guide the 50-car motorcade back to where a hometown crowd of about 1,000 gathered in celebration outside the post office.
“What a big deal it all must have been,’’ said Sally Hartshorn, who married Stan in 1952, about three years after he completed his MBA at the University of Michigan. “The band . . . the parade . . . I’ll bet he was just overwhelmed by it all.’’
Stan died nearly two years ago at age 83, he and Sally having raised six kids in their turn-of-the-century home on Elm Street. Stan ran the family furniture-making business, C.H. Hartshorn, Inc., until it was dissolved in 2002, and though Sally doesn’t doubt for a second that his big day at Derby Downs was an everlasting joy in his life, she isn’t at all surprised that he barely, if ever, told anyone about it, rarely mentioned it even to their kids — Stan III, Susan, Sharon, Sarah, Shelley, and Scott.
“Just not him, not his way to say anything,’’ said Sally, leafing through a well-preserved stack of yellowed newspaper clippings detailing her husband’s race in ’38 and the ballyhoo that followed. “A gentle guy . . . a quiet man, soft-spoken. I told him many times that he ought to go to schools, tell the kids all about it, let them share the excitement. But . . . ’’
Stan was a saver. He stashed away the clippings, along with a handsome trove of towering silver trophies that he collected in Akron, including one for the fastest heat ever recorded there (28.66 seconds to be exact).
America gathered 114 racers to the top of the hill that afternoon, before a massive crowd estimated at 125,000, and only two of them finished ahead of Gardner’s Stan Hartshorn, Jr.
Along with the trophies, he also brought home his prized car, the one his dad helped him build in the basement of the family home on Highland Street. Seventy-four years later, the car, with three of Stan’s racing helmets still tucked in the cockpit, rests in a dusty corner of an otherwise empty warehouse near Elm Street. The car could use a little polish and tuneup, but it otherwise looks fit for action, although soap box racers today are built from official AASBD standardized kits rather than imaginations, buggy wheels, and woodshop scraps.
“Before he went to Akron, he had to qualify around here, race it in the local races,’’ said Sally, standing next to her late husband’s heirloom, near a window of the old R.W. Smith Silver Factory. “I bet he took that straight as a die right down Parker Street. You don’t hear that anymore, do you? ‘Straight as a die.’ ’’
There was no scale handy, but my attempted lift of Hartshorn’s proud racer revealed that it must weigh upward of 250 pounds. According to a mixture of newspaper clips and Sally Hartshorn’s memory, the car was fashioned from the various scraps and workshop calculations that made soap box racers classic examples of American ingenuity.
Hartshorn, who earned an undergraduate degree from Michigan in wood technology prior to his MBA, refashioned a wooden door for the car’s platform. Wood scraps also shaped the body, and a tin sign, once advertising Glenwood cook stoves, formed its skin. The wheels came from the Gardner-based Hedstrom Union Co., a maker of baby carriages, bicycles, and the like. The company’s Carl Hedstrom, Jr., made the train ride back and forth to Akron with big and little Stan.
The town’s museum, according to Sally Hartshorn, plans soon to incorporate the car in its collection.
In the history of the All-American Soap Box Derby, which began in 1934, only four Massachusetts kids have finished in the top three at Akron. Hartshorn’s No. 3 finish was equaled by a Bostonian, Damon Papuga, in 1975. Jamie Bourque, from Waltham, finished second in the junior division in ’77, and Worcester’s Tony Clemente finished T-2, also as a junior, in ’79.
On July 14, before a crowd of approximately 6,000 in Akron, four Massachusetts kids, including 12-year-old Dana Kellogg from Chesterfield, made their way to the top of Derby Downs in hopes of being the first from the Bay State to return home a champ. The sport has seen a slight revival around Boston, principally because Cary Conrad, a successful businessman originally from suburban Chicago, in recent years has organized a popular derby day in Arlington each summer. His children, Miller (17), Campbell (15), and Alec (10), also raced at Derby Downs this year.
The All-American Soap Box Derby rolls on, though its wheels no longer considered as hot as they were pre- and post-World War II. A little kid with a big dream in Central Mass. today more likely conjurs up the image of a $100 million NFL contract rather than, oh, some scholarship aid and a big trophy awaiting at the bottom of a hill in Akron.
But 74 years ago, in that car he and his dad cobbled together in the basement, the day turned into the ride of Stan Hartshorn’s life.
“Ah, look,’’ said Sally Hartshorn, a tender laugh rising as she read from a report that weekend in ’38 from the Akron Beacon Journal. “This story calls him, ‘A lovable youngster.’ You know . . . I’m sure he was.’’