Twice during a recent week, I encountered very unexpected but very impressive vehicle collections. One was in America’s Midwestern heartland. The other was on the rocky, rugged coast of Maine. While the geography was very different, the vehicles were very similar. They were Soap Box Derby racers, which with age and history are both classic and collectible.
Derby Downs, in Akron, Ohio is home of the All-America Soap Box Derby and is a well-known sports venue pursued by hundreds of young racers not only from across the country but from around the world. But what I didn’t know was at the top of the hill is the All-American Soap Box Derby Hall of Fame and Museum. Inside, maybe a couple hundred or more gravity racers dating back to the beginning of the sport are on display.
Some of the cars sit on the floor. Some are on benches. Some hang upside down. One, driven in 1975 by Karren Stead of Lower Bucks County, Pennsylvania, is in a glass case to commemorate the first victory after girls were included in the races. Most hang vertically on the walls.
There’s nothing glitzy or even glamorous about the museum, which is basically housed at one of end of a big pole-barn storage building. But the story told by those cars, photos of winning racers and other items is one of American youngsters, their engineering and design skills, and their need for speed.
And, sadly, how some adults push things beyond the rules. One of the cars on display was equipped with an electromagnet in its nose; the magnet got just enough of a pull when the metal starting gate retracted to release the racers down the hill that the car won two years in a row before the magnet was discovered.
Visit the museum and you’ll not only see the cars on display and photos of the winning drivers, but you will learn how soap box derby began when a newspaper photographer saw kids racing down a hill in Dayton, Ohio, and convinced Chevrolet to sponsor an official derby in 1934. The race moved to Akron, which had better topography, in 1935. A year later, construction of Derby Downs was done as a WPA project. The racing was all boys until 1971.
I visited Derby Downs while on the ELK Charity Challenge road and adventure rally, which took us from Dearborn, Michigan, to Lake Placid, New York with stops not only at Derby Downs, but at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Alfred State College, the Corning Glass Museum, one of the Shriners hospitals, the site of the 1980 Winter Olympics and other interesting and even unique places. The challenge completed, I realized I was less than a day’s drive from Maine and the Owls Head Transportation Museum, of which I’d heard good things but had yet to visit.
The museum was much more than I’d expected, and one of the surprises was to see three soap box derby racers hanging on one of the museum’s walls as part of the “Faster: The Quest for Speed” exhibition. Faster not only includes historic racing cars but motorcycles and an area on racing for youngsters with go-karts, quarter-midgets, dirt bikes and the three soap box derby racers.
All of which got me to wondering: If you’re putting together a great car collection, with brass era and pre-war and post-war and muscle cars, with a few vintage motorcycles, and with automobilia including signs and pedal cars, shouldn’t that collection also include a couple of gravity racers?
The All-American Soap Box Derby Hall of Fame and Museum is open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. Plan your visit in advance with a group and you can rent the Derby Downs race course and stage your own derby in adult-sized racers. For details, visit the soap box derby website.
The Owls Head Transportation Museum is in Owls Head, Maine, just south of Rockland, is open daily from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. For details, visit the museum website.
Photos by Larry Edsall