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Soap Box Derby Rolls Into an Uphill Challenge

Trying to get the race back on the road, organizers refuse to confront cheating.

August 13, 2003|Melanie Payne | Melanie Payne is the author of "Champions, Cheaters, and Childhood Dreams: Memories of the All-American Soap Box Derby" (University of Akron Press, 2003).

For a few hours one recent Saturday, Wilton "Bill" Blakely, a 13-year-old from North Carolina, was on top of the world. He was a member of an elite group of fewer than 120 people who could call themselves All-American Soap Box Derby world champions.

Bill had taken the triumphant ride back up Derby Downs race track in Akron, Ohio, where minutes before his gravity-powered racing car had coasted to victory. He was wearing the gold jacket that distinguished him as the champ. He posed with his trophy -- nearly as tall as he is -- on the hill where he won the race. But three hours later he was world champion no more. He was stripped of his title and the $2,500 college scholarship that went with it. He was asked to remove his jacket and hand it over to a derby official.

A post-race inspection had found that the teenager had doctored his racer -- he had cheated.

Such cheating, to one degree or another, is as old as the race. Despite the attempts that the All-American's board of trustees has made to portray the race as pure, wholesome fun, there's a dark side that reared its ugly head again in Akron last month. And an event that was finally making a comeback was tainted once again not only by cheating and but also by a failure to acknowledge that it goes on.

The All-American Soap Box Derby began in 1934 in Dayton, Ohio, but moved to Akron the following year. It has been run every year since, except for a brief suspension during World War II, when the rubber needed to make derby tires was reserved for the war effort. During its heyday in the late 1940s and early 1950s, local races were held in 150 U.S. cities.

The race was so popular in Los Angeles that typically 1,000 kids showed up to compete. Local winners would travel to Akron, where in the words of one world champ they "were treated like royalty."

On Saturday of race week, they would race against each other for a few tense hours in single-elimination races, until one of them emerged as the world champion. Some years as many as 100,000 spectators would come to watch the event.

The derby hung on to its Depression-era roots until the 1970s. Harking back to a time when kids built their own toys from items they scrounged, the derby rules stated that the boy (no girls were allowed) had to build his own car and couldn't spend more than $75 on the materials. But these rules were violated with impunity. Many boys became jockeys for fathers or uncles who built the cars. Regional derby directors across the country begged the Soap Box Derby board to recognize that cheating was ruining the race. But the board turned a blind eye.

The derby's failure to confront cheating head-on almost led to its undoing once before.

In 1972, a man named Bob Lange decided his son would enter -- and win -- the All-American race. The car was designed by a research scientist in California. Lange flew a former world champion from Indiana to his home in Boulder, Colo., to act as a consultant, and he had the car tested in a wind tunnel. Lange's son won the race, but before the car could be examined, Lange spirited it out of Akron, raising ire and suspicion.

The next year Lange went through similar machinations to make sure the title of world champion stayed in the family. Lange even gave his nephew, Jimmy Gronen, an extra edge by installing a battery-operated magnet in the nose so that when the metal starting plate went into the ground he would automatically be propelled forward. Officials examining Gronen's racer found buttons on the steering wheel and headrest. An X-ray showed the wires and the battery. In front of a group of reporters in downtown Akron, the officials cut the car in half and exposed the illegal device.

Gronen became the first world champion racer stripped of his title. And the bashing the derby received from the media nearly nailed the coffin shut on an event already in decline.

The derby's sponsor, the Chevrolet Motor Co., pulled out of the race, a move that derby officials doggedly contend was unrelated to the cheating. Without Chevrolet's million-dollar budget and phalanx of celebrities and auto dealers to promote the race, entries dropped to fewer than a hundred and only a couple thousand people showed up to watch the race.

The derby hung on, thanks to dedicated volunteers and a legion of now-adult former derby racers who wanted their children and grandchildren to experience the thrill of rolling downhill at 25 mph. These people could recall some of the derby's glorious moments, as in the 1940s when Akron derby officials refused to allow segregated races and welcomed black champions from North Carolina to stay at the Mayflower Hotel like every other champ. They remembered the heroic competitor in 1952 who wrecked his car in the first heat but came back to win the derby. And they recalled with pride the mother who forced the derby to allow girls to race.

But their dedication has once again been betrayed by derby officials too willing to whitewash cheating. When confronted with the evidence last month that Bill Blakely had used epoxy to construct the racer and added a bearing to his steering mechanism (giving him an edge over other drivers), the derby spokesman refused to characterize it as "cheating." Instead, he said, Bill had "intentionally violated the rules."

This type of response makes derby officials appear woefully out of touch with reality. And it further marginalizes the race, making it appear not only anachronistic but corrupt.

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