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Race Down Memory Lane : Tustin Man Hopes to Revive a Bit of Americana: the Local Soapbox Derby

January 28, 1993|DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORANGE — A cracked asphalt track heading nowhere in a field strewn with weeds is all that remains of a piece of Americana.

Here, on private land near the intersection of Jamboree and Santiago Canyon roads, hundreds of spectators used to gather at Orange County's only soapbox derby track to watch their favorite peewee drivers whoosh by at unbelievable speeds. During the same period, as many as 60,000 fans regularly turned out for the national championships in Akron, Ohio.

Then times changed. Home garages once used to construct the kid-size race cars gave way to garage-less condominiums occupied, in many cases, by one-parent families. Instead of learning to use tools at their fathers' sides, children began spending their spare time watching TV and playing video games. And spiraling insurance costs transformed a national sport into an almost forgotten relic.

Enter John Taylor, a Tustin man with a goal to resurrect in Orange County and Southern California the soapbox derby, a kids' racing event that has been virtually dead here since the mid-1970s.

"The whole idea is to get kids involved," said Taylor, 42, founder and director of a Tustin-based organization called Kids Racing Assn. Inc. Last year's civil disturbances in Los Angeles, he said, dramatically underscored the need to develop positive activities for children.

"Something has to be changed," Taylor said. "I want to show them how to build things rather than tear things down."

Many adults will remember the derby from their childhoods. It began in 1933 as the outgrowth of a journalistic assignment given to Myron Scott, then a photographer for the Dayton Tribune. Go forth into Ohio, Scott had been told, and produce a photo essay on what children do for fun. In his own hometown, the photographer discovered a group of young boys racing homemade kid-driven cars down a hill. After taking pictures, the newsman got an idea. Come back in two weeks, he told the youngsters, and he would award a trophy to the driver of the fastest car.

About 35 boys showed up for that first derby, won by a car made from an ironing board, clothesline, tricycle wheels, screen door, springs and trash can. The next year the race was run on a budget of $4,500 supplied by Scott's newspaper. The winner was a child whose car--sponsored by Evers Laundry--was made from a soapbox. The name stuck, and in 1935 the All American Soap Box Derby moved to Akron, where it came under the sponsorship of General Motors and began evolving into a national event.

For the next 35 years, the race flourished. At its height in the late-1960s, according to Taylor, the national championship--run on a permanent track called Derby Downs--attracted the participation of young winners from preliminary races in more than a hundred American cities. In California alone during that period, Taylor said, as many as 10,000 drivers--about a thousand of them in Orange County--participated in local events that virtually dotted the coast.

Then the decline began. The cost of liability insurance became increasingly prohibitive. Southern California dropped out of the competition, running its last qualifying race in Long Beach in 1955. And a 1971 cheating scandal prompted General Motors to drop its sponsorship, seriously crippling the race.

Today the soapbox derby still goes on every year in Akron, but has disappeared almost everywhere else. That's the scenario Taylor aims to change.

Taylor, a former professional water skier, Olympic yachtsman and sailboat race producer and president of a telecommunications consulting firm in Irvine, has long had a love of speed. So it was with some interest that he listened, two years ago, to a friend reminiscing about the soapbox derby that had graced both their youths. Somewhere along the line, Taylor thought: If then why not now , and viola!, the Kid's Racing Assn. was born.

Last July, the association sponsored the first Southern California Championship Soap Box Derby in 36 years. Held in Long Beach, the race--like the events of old--took place on a steep hill. Carefully built to detailed specifications from kits or from scratch, the fiberglass and wooden cars--each just large enough to carry one pint-size driver--started from a gate at the top of the hill and, drawn by gravity, reached speeds of up to 40 m.p.h. Unlike the old days, however, winners in this race were determined by computers linked to sophisticated infrared sensors accurate to one one-thousandth of an inch.

According to Taylor, the race was an exciting event won by 14-year-old Kenny Girardi of Huntington Beach. But only 42 cars--half of them driven by girls--participated, far from the turnouts of old. And as he tried to analyze, Taylor said, the truth hit him like a ton of axle grease: kids don't have garages anymore. They don't know how to design cars or use tools to finish them. And many no longer have fathers to teach them such things.

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