Sunday, November 16, 2014

All-American Soap Box Derby

Photos by OHventures

789 Derby Downs Dr.
Akron, OH 44306
(330) 733-8723

The All-American Soap Box Derby is truly an all-American pastime. Every July since 1934 (except for the years of World War II), hundreds of youth have flocked to the Derby Downs racetrack in Akron (except for the first year in which is was located in Dayton) to compete in the iconic race. 

To take part in the competition, youngsters aged 7-18 (separated in heats by age and experience) throughout United States and the world are required to construct their own race car to bring with them on the big day. Originally, this meant they were tasked with designing the cart and acquiring the materials themselves. Currently, however, those participating are shipped the materials and blueprints so that all cars are on an even playing field. 

The cars (either stock, super-stock, or master, according to the division one has entered) are made out of wood (originally wood from soap crates, hence the name) and standardized wheels with precision  ball bearings (all produced at a warehouse on site in Akron). The cars do not have a motor and rely 100% on gravity to zoom down the track. Thankfully, Akron is extremely hilly, which is how the location of the track was determined.

Derby Downs is comprised of a giant hill with a 989-foot paved track and multiple lanes, with metal bleachers on each side. At the height of its popularity (in the 1950s and 1960s), upwards of 60,000 spectators (including many famous actors and celebrities) would come to marvel at the event. While it is still popular today, the crowds are not nearly to the same magnitude as they once were.

Because of this, the All-American Soap Box Derby has in recent years added many other events and programs that allow for other folks to experience the splendor and excitement of Derby Downs.

Some of the events and programs include: 
  • Senior Day: Seniors enjoy lunch, health information booths, health screenings and a trip down Derby Downs in an adult Soap Box Derby car.
  • Autism Day: A special day to raise awareness, support and hope for Autism and give an opportunity to folks who would not normally have the chance to experience the thrill of the hill.
  • Corporate/Private Events: A company or individual can rent the track for a day for a corporate or private event!
  • STEM Summer Camp: High schoolers in STEM schools have the chance to design, construct, race, and showcase their own creations!
  • Gravity Racing Challenge (GRC): Designed to provide K-12 educators and students with meaningful, project- and standards-based, intercurricular learning opportunities in classroom setting.
Keep an eye out for these events and more ways you might be able to experience Derby Downs. If you are unable to ride, spectators are always welcome!

I had the once-in-a-lifetime rare opportunity to hop in an adult-sized soap box derby car and ride the track all by myself this fall! I was so grateful to have the chance to be on this sacred track, and it didn't hurt that they put me in a Swenson's cart! I am unsure of my exact time or speed, but I was told that the cars reach speeds of about 35 miles per hour. Although I was a bit nervous I wouldn't be that great at steering the race car or braking in time, my ride was smooth and successful!

In addition to the track and production building on site, there is also a museum and hall of fame, which showcases the evolution of the soap box cars, famous items from over the years, photos of every winner in soap box derby history, and more historic artifacts & memorabilia.

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