Home of the All-American Soap Box Derby since 1936
I admit, I read about the derby in Boys' Life magazine as a kid and dreamed of participating. It was not until 2016 that I actually made it to Derby Downs. There was nothing going on that day, but I made it. Finally. And this photo spread is the result.
In 1933, a photographer for the Dayton Daily News, Myron Scott, stumbled into three boys racing homemade, motorless cars down a hill. He loved what he saw and asked the boys to return a week later and he would host a more formal race. Word got around and a week later, nineteen boys showed up with homebuilt cars. Scott excitedly asked his editor for some sponsorship and on August 19, 1933, a derby was held. There were 362 entrants with cars made from crates and scraps, rolling on wheels acquired from, well, acquired somehow, probably from baby buggies and roller skates. Police estimated 40,000 spectators gathered to watch the races.
The success of Scott's derby in Dayton was told in a newspaper trade magazine and soon similar contests were being held around the country.
The event moved to Akron in 1936 because of the hilly terrain and more more central location. The WPA built Derby Downs at the Akron Airport and the event has been held there ever since. The runoff is in the shadow of the Rubber Bowl, a stadium that has fallen into disuse.
The derby caught the attention of officials at Chevrolet Motor Division of GM, and immediately began sponsorship that lasted until 1972. Chevrolet started the tradition of awarding scholarships. The car maker went so far as to distribute wheels, axles and rulebooks through their dealer network. After Chevrolet pulled their sponsorship, the derby struggled but sponsorship came from Goodyear, Levi Strauss and others. The major sponsor is now First Energy, one of the nation's largest providers of energy.
Derby Downs is owned by the City of Akron. In 1999 and 2000, a major capitol expenditure of about $1.5 million replaced the aging stands and repaved the track. (It was repaved again in 2009.) In 2000, the steel bridge over the finish line replaced the aging structure that had been built in 1937. It is 35'7" away from the former finish line, effectively lengthening the track to 989'4". An additional 1,200' of track provides a run-out beyond the finish line. The track is 30' wide and is lined by guard rails.
Soap Box cars start at the top of the hill. A paddle holds the racers in place, when the paddles drop, gravity takes over. The initial drop from the starting gate is a 16% grade (a drop of 16 feet for every 100 feet of distance.) The 16% grade lasts a little less than 54' then smooths to a 6% grade for 530' and the rest of the run is on a 2% grade.
Boys and girls participate in the derby, girls began racing in 1971. Karen Stead was the first girl to win the derby in 1975. It took until 1993 and 1994 for a two-time champion to win the derby.
If it's possible for a facility to be state of the art for gravity powered racing, Akron's Derby Downs is certainly state of the art.