Soap Box Derby

June 12, 2015
Soap Box Derby

All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron

by Lexi Hotchkiss

When you think of a soap box derby, your brain probably conjures up an image of a gee-golly time of yesteryear filled with Andy Griffith Show-style capers, poodle skirts, bobby socks and malt shop soda pops. Heck, when your grandparents were kids, soap box derby cars were made of just that - giant wooden boxes used to hold soap.

So, you might be a little surprised to learn that this old-school sport - now known as "gravity racing" - is experiencing quite the peak these days. And, things get downright competitive.

Don't believe me? Then check out the 76th Annual All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron July 19 - 25.

How does it work? Boys and girls from all around the world ranging in age from 7 - 20 order official International Soap Box Derby kits that include a shell, wooden floorboards and the appropriate hardware. Cars are then assembled in as little as five hours with the help of an adult.

Then, these kids compete in soap box derby races all around the world in an effort to qualify for the mother-of-all-races in Akron.

"We have 110 [soap box derby] districts around the world and 600 competitive races throughout the year. We have racers coming from all over the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Germany and even Japan," Bobby Dinkins, Vice President of the All-American Soap Box Derby, said.

The derby in Akron draws as many as 10,000 people including the 450 racers themselves, which is the largest number of racers in the event's history.

"I get asked all the time, ‘If they're all using the same kit, how do the cars go faster?' Well, first, it's about setting up your car. A lot of it is determined by how you have your axels aligned and subtle things like spindling, which is making sure that all four wheels are touching the ground. Then, there's the aerodynamics of how the child sits in the car. And, obviously, driver skill is the number one factor. You also have to remember that these kids are winning by thousandths of a second," said Dinkins.

The weeklong event in Akron includes several days of racing, inspections and all sorts of family-friendly events including a parade and opening ceremonies at Lock 3 in downtown Akron on Monday, July 20.

"This year, we'll also have rally racing all throughout the week. This is the first time we're doing this," said Dinkins.

While the derby in Akron is a seven-day event, the official race is on Saturday, July 25 at Derby Downs, a specially designed track.  Throughout the race, visitors can enjoy fair-style refreshments, inflatables, games and other activities.

The goals of the Soap Box Derby program haven't changed since it began in 1934. They are to teach youngsters some of the basic skills of workmanship, the spirit of competition and the perseverance to continue a project once it has begun.

"These kids are learning STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Math] and they don't even know it," said Dinkins.

When you visit the big race, you'll feel a true sense of Americana. Soap box derby racing brings together families in a unique way that most sports can't ever boast.

"It's not like baseball, basketball or soccer - you don't drop your kids off and come back an hour later to pick them up. With soap box derby, the family is involved from start to finish," said Dinkins. "I've had dads say to me, ‘It's the only activity where I get to spend time with my daughter. We race and spend time together every weekend.'"

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