Soap Box Derby Days
Essayist Brooks Smith -- rediscovering Richmond sports history -- retells some memories of the Soap Box Derby.
The all American Soap Box Derby rumbled to life way back in 1934 through one of those happy accidents that seemed to accompany the mother of all great inventions. As the story goes, a photographer for a local paper happened to come across three boys racing home made go carts in the street. The photographer, a fellow named Myron Scott, was known for creative thinking and somewhere in the recesses of his mind’s eye, he captured not only the iconic image of boys behaving like boys, but also the idea for a grand scale national youth racing competition.
More than a million racers later, Scott’s vision has become what is affectionately and perhaps not so immodestly known as the greatest amateur racing event in the world. Each year children from all over the globe descend on Akron, Ohio for the world championships, but to get there, they have to win in their hometown first. Richmond’s Soap Box Derby has been around since least the 50’s. Back then the races took place over on Lakeside Avenue down Bryan Park Hill. In the 80’s our derby boosters moved the race downtown, first to the mammoth hill on Canal, then Byrd, and then Second and Tenth Streets.
Throughout its run from the glory days of the 60’s to the halcyon days of today, the Soap Box Derby has been about craft, perseverance, and competition. According to an old brochure the ingredients for success are a look of cool determination, steady hands, and in the background of course, a willing parent. To which I should add, an uncle, or a troop leader, or for the kids at the Patrick Henry House who compete each year, a caring community volunteer.
The Derby is nearly incongruous in these days of virtual action and animated video sports. It might take a hundred hours of bruised thumbs to assemble a racing shell, all for the thrill of a 30 second race. But as I’ve learned from racers past and present, from the happy wistful but determined looks in their eyes, the Derby is about much more than can be packaged into a video game. As Tennyson might say, the Derby is not now what it once was, but it abides. And for a few hours on Saturday, June 5th, over by gate 6 at the International Raceway, it will be recalled to life through the joyful noise of racers and care givers and, hopefully, our community at large. The event is free, the hill is wide, the steering is tight, and as they say, the memories are priceless.
Song: Paul Simon’s “Stranded in a Limousine”