End of the Soap Box Derby?

Discussion in 'OFF-Topic / Misc.' started by Njaco, Jul 25, 2009.

  1. Njaco

    Njaco The Pop-Tart Whisperer
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    Soap Box Derby Faces Rough Road
    By STUART WARNER, for AOL News

    AKRON, Ohio (July 24) -- Maybe it's hard for some in this warp-speed cyber world to understand how a race featuring boys rolling down a 1,000-foot hill in homemade cars became an international spectacle, providing a much-needed jolt of excitement for a country mired in the Depression. It may be equally difficult for those who can remember when the Soap Box Derby was as All-American as Jimmy Stewart, Dinah Shore, Ronald Reagan and Chevrolet to imagine a world without it.Yet as it approaches the starting line for Saturday's race, the 75-year-old All-American Soap Box Derby finds itself facing the elimination heat of its long life, staring down at a steep hill of debt and searching for a national sponsor.

    "It's a difficult time," conceded Jim Huntsman, CEO of International Soap Box Derby Inc., a nonprofit that runs the All-American. "We're in the same world economic crisis that everybody else is in."
    The Derby lost almost $400,000 last year and is on pace, Huntsman acknowledged, to lose another $200,000 this year.

    The race lost its last major corporate sponsor, Levi Strauss Co., two years ago. Government and foundation donations have slipped, too. The cuts forced organizers to pare scholarship money for the winners by more than half. They will award only $29,000 total to the top three finishers in each of six divisions. Trophies will be passed out on Derby Downs, saving the expense of renting a formal hall for Saturday evening's award ceremonies. The race is no longer broadcast live. There will be no celebrity guests. Their agents want too much money. "We're still racing," Huntsman said. "We're going to put on a great event Saturday, then we're going to go about the business of finding new sponsors and getting out of this financial hole."

    The Derby has been down this road before; he is confident it can steer itself to safety again.
    These tough economic times may be threatening the Derby, but they are nothing compared to the conditions that spawned it. Figures released this week show unemployment at 10.5 percent in Summit County, where Akron is located. When the Derby began in 1933, national unemployment was around 23 percent.

    That first race was in Dayton, Ohio, for locals only. It attracted 362 boys driving a collection of homemade contraptions and a stomping, cheering crowd estimated at more than 40,000 by the Dayton Daily News. The next year, the race went national as the champions from 19 cities met in Dayton for the first All-American Soap Box Derby. In 1935, Chevrolet moved the event to Akron, where the industrial unemployment rate bottomed out at an unfathomable 60 percent, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. Some 90,000 folks, obviously starved for escapist entertainment, showed up that year to watch the boys zoom down treacherous Tallmadge Hill on the city's east side at speeds upward of 50 mph. One of the cars struck an NBC radio announcer broadcasting the event, breaking his leg. The next year, the Works Progress Administration, part of the original federal stimulus package, constructed Derby Downs, with a safer track and a 30,000-seat grandstand, where the race is still held today.

    Officials estimated a crowd of more than 100,000 showed up when the Derby resumed in 1946 after a four-year hiatus for World War II. Years later, they admitted there was no way ever to fit that many people in Derby Downs and that the crowds probably topped out around 60,000 or so. Television soon brought the Derby into homes around the world and the exposure brought out the stars. Movie legend Jimmy Stewart showed up six times, once canceling the weekend performances of his Broadway play 'Harvey' to attend the Derby. Reagan raced in the celebrity Oil-Can Derby. Then-Vice President Richard Nixon started the race in 1959. Chevrolet used the Derby to promote the TV shows it sponsored, bringing in the stars from 'Bonanza,' 'Bewitched' and 'The Dinah Shore Show,' among others. By the 1960s, Chevy was pumping more than $1 million a year into the Derby’s tank.

    But then a bad dude showed up.

    Not 14-year-old Jimmy Gronen, the 1973 winner who was disqualified when officials discovered a magnet device that increased his car's speed. His rich uncle had the device installed and was later convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. No, the real villain to Derby fans was John DeLorean, the new general manager of Chevrolet. On Sept. 29, 1972, he announced that the company was withdrawing its support of the Derby. "I considered it a low form of entertainment," he told the Akron Beacon Journal almost a year later. "I felt for years it had no place in contemporary America."

    The cheating scandal that followed Chevy's exit, he said, "is probably the kiss of death."

    Never mind that it is General Motors that just got out of bankruptcy and that DeLorean's major contribution to the auto industry was a prop for the movie 'Back to the Future.' He almost got the Derby's future right. By 1975, the Derby had $500 in its bank account and only 99 cars in the race. That fall, however, a local company, Novar Electronics, stepped up to save the event. Other financial angels like Goodyear, Firestone, Home Depot and NASCAR followed over the next three decades. Then, one by one, the sponsors dropped off for various reasons and so did the Derby’s bottom line.

    In 2006, the Derby took in less than $800,000, about half of its expenses, according to its federal tax filings. By comparison, Chevy's $1 million-plus contribution in 1970 would have been worth about $6 million today.

    There is obvious concern in Akron about the Derby's financial status. "We're keenly aware that there are other cities that would love to host a family-friendly event like this," said David Lieberth, deputy mayor of administration for the city, which is one of the few entities to increase its Derby contribution. "We're going to do everything we can to keep it here and keep it going."

    Yet if you were walking about topside Wednesday morning at Derby Downs, you would have sensed none of that gloom amid the kaleidoscopic swirl of activity as almost 600 kids -- just a few short of last year’s record 604 participants -- prepared their sleek cars for their only trial run down the 989.4-foot hill. They were accompanied by parents, grandparents, siblings, volunteers from all over the country and the constant click-click-click of digital cameras.

    Maybe they are all still a step behind contemporary America. Their sport lacks the flash of the heavily promoted X-Games or other extreme competitions. You don't see any tattoos or Mohawks on the competitors, who represent 155 American cities as well as five other countries. Some are from major metropolitan areas like New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, but an awful lot of cars bore the inscriptions of small-town America: Valley City, N.D.; Kodiak, Alaska; Ogallala, Neb.; and Katy’s Purple Cow from Marietta, Ga.

    And it's truly a sport for the entire family. Girls have been competing since 1971 and more than hold their own. Parents can work with their children to build the cars from kits, ranging from $400 to $600 plus another $100 for wheels. That's quite a change from the early days, when "real boys" author Frank DeFord wrote in Sports Illustrated two decades ago, "took crates and skates and elbow grease, built cars and raced them." Claude Smith, the 1941 champion, was one of those "real boys." He and his brother built their own cars with the maximum $10 budget … and $6.50 of that went for the wheels. Adults were not allowed to help. But Smith, now 82 who lives in nearby Bath, Ohio, applauds the family atmosphere the new Derby creates. "It's a different time," he said during a visit to the Downs this week.

    Perhaps no one embraces the sense of Derby family more than another set of Smiths, no relation to Claude, from the Columbus, Ohio, area. Twelve-year-old Izzy Smith is making her third trip to the All-American, hoping to finally put a first-place trophy on the family’s mantle. Her parents, Brian and Ivy, met through Derby racing. Brian finished second in 1985 and third in 1984. Brian's brother, Mark, placed third in 1981. Izzy's mother finished ninth in 1986. Three of Ivy's sisters and two of Brian's sisters also raced. So did Brian's dad, although he never made it to the All-American. All totaled, the family has qualified 17 times for the Akron race.

    "This is the quality time I get to spend with Izzy," Brian said as he walked her car toward the starting line. He also has a 4-year-old son, Dennis, who already has the bug and can’t wait until he's old enough -– 8 is the minimum -– to race. Brian frowned just a bit when asked if his son will ride in the All-American someday.
    "You worry every year that it's not going to be there," he said. Huntsman worries about the same thing.
    "Sure we feel the pressure … a responsibility to the kids who are racing now and the ones in the future," said the Derby CEO, who acknowledges that there has been criticism of changes he's made to the institution. He talked about attaching science and math programs to Derby racing to attract more involvement by schools. He wants more corporations to buy cars for at-risk kids, as is being done for Chicago's Off The Street Club.
    "We're going to be here," he promised. "The Derby is a survivor."

    2009 AOL LLC. All Rights Reserved.
    2009-07-23 16:18:57
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  2. evangilder

    evangilder "Shooter"
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    Sad to see that go. My father helped one of our neighbors build a car for one of the events in Dayton. He volunteered at one or two for one or two of the events as well. Back then (late 60s), they used one of the experimental runways at Wright Patterson for the race.
     
  3. RabidAlien

    RabidAlien Active Member

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    Man, that's sad.
     
  4. FLYBOYJ

    FLYBOYJ "THE GREAT GAZOO"
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    Very sad.

    My brother and dad were heavily involved in the Soap Box Derby in the early 1960s. My brother actually won a local SBD on Staten Island and later placed 2nd in a NYC wide meet. My dad was an auto mechanic at a local Chevy dealer and got his dealership to sponsor my brother and the car. Those were great fun days!
     
  5. Colin1

    Colin1 Active Member

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    That sounds like a hell of a lot of fun 8)
    I hope they manage to save it
     
  6. wheelsup_cavu

    wheelsup_cavu Well-Known Member

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    That will be very sad if they are unable to save it.
    I never built a car but I remember going to the races when I was a kid.
    They had a huge hill in Petersburg, IL they used for the course.


    Wheels
     
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