Erica is a writer, editor, wife, and mom. She has always found employment with an English degree and she excels at nurturing children and animals but struggles to keep houseplants alive. Erica currently writes at SidewaysQ.com

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All-American Soap Box Derby for the Family

Sometimes called “The Greatest Amateur Racing Event in the World” or “The Gravity Grand Prix,” the All-American Soap Box Derby is, in the Fehrman family, a hallowed sport.

Sam Fehrman celebrating 3rd place in Rally Super Stock, 2012. 

In fact, my boys will be the third generation to race, and they’re already practicing.

He’s getting low.

My husband’s dad and uncles began racing in Muncie, Indiana in the 1950’s.  His aunt couldn’t race because girls weren’t allowed at the time.  In the 1990’s, my husband and his sister (Jake & Jessica) became the first brother-sister “Champions” in Anderson, Indiana.  Jake went on to win 5th in the Masters (’91), while Jess got 6th in the Junior Division.  She also won 2nd in the Masters (’92), and their cousin Sam just won 3rd in Rally Super Stock last week (in addition to past top finishes), at the 75th anniversary Derby.

(Jake also won a Best Construction Award in the Junior Division in 1990 but got “wheeled” during the race, which is to say he believes his loss was due to poor wheels from the random wheel pairing assigned by the Derby.  Conspiracy or poor luck?  A constant source of family discussion.)

All-American Soap Box Derby racing has come a long way since its inception, in 1933.  A photographer named Scottie first organized a downhill race in order to take pictures of the kids racing home-built cars, and then created a more formal competition from there.  Now, kids all over the world build cars to race in Local Rallies and various Stock, Super Stock, Masters, and other divisions.

What is interesting about Soap Box Derby, however, is that parental involvement is not only encouraged, it is virtually required.  In other sports, parents cheer and pony up money for extra lessons and leagues.  In Soap Box Derby, parents buy a car kit (though in my husband’s day, they built from scratch and he learned composite engineering at an early age).  Then they work with the kids to build and hone the kit, measuring weight and balance carefully.  It’s up to the kids to drive, in itself more difficult than it looks when considering track conditions, cross winds, and steady hands.  Since Derby hills are not found on every block as soccer fields and basketball courts are, Derby families travel hours and sometimes days away to race in various Rally competitions, striving to make the cut for the National competition in Akron, Ohio.

Clockwise from top left: Parents & kids wait behind the starting line, holding hooks to keep the cars from rolling downhill; Three cars race with the Goodyear Blimp airdock in the background; Sam Fehrman’s cheering squad; Gemma McDougal and her dad traveled from New Zealand – his hat has a kiwi bird on top.

As you can imagine, this all becomes an expensive hobby.  At Akron this year, I asked around and found that the families involved considered it an investment in a family activity.  When the kid wins, everyone feels a part of it.  Indeed, there are families who travel to Akron from North Dakota and even Japan, Germany, and New Zealand.  Their cars come from across the ocean, too!

There’s no popularity contest in Soap Box Derby, though the kids do race for upwards of ten years and find themselves with a network of friends all over the country.  If you’re interested in a thinking sport that draws your family together and provides a lifetime — and even generational — camaraderie, check out the All-American Soap Box Derby.  

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