LIMA — Lima’s first Soap Box Derby was less than two weeks away, and many of the participants were scrambling for the most essential of parts. Wheels, in that Depression summer of 1936, were in short supply.
“Many of the 150 Lima area speed enthusiasts have ordinary wagon wheels on their mounts, but would be overjoyed at the gift of a set of real-for-sure ball bearing buggy wheels,” The Lima News reported July 12, 1936. “So, if you have an infant’s carriage about the house that has passed its day of usefulness …”
The Derby was the brainchild of Dayton newspaperman Myron Scott who, according to derby history, came across a group of boys racing homemade cars in 1933 and was so impressed with the event he obtained a copyright and a corporate sponsor, Chevrolet. In the summer of 1934, the first Soap Box Derby was held in Dayton. In 1935, the Derby moved to Akron, where it gained international attention when popular radio announcer Graham McNamee was struck and injured by an out-of-control car. In 1936 the race moved to Derby Downs in Akron, a Works Progress Administration project.
“The All-American Soap Box Derby, most talked of amateur racing event in the world, is scheduled this year for Lima,” the News announced May 24, 1936. “All that is necessary to compete for the local and national prize is to build a smooth-running car that will coast downhill.” The Lima Derby was sponsored by Chevrolet and the American Legion. Contestants were to be divided into two classes, 9- to 12-year-olds and 13-to-15-year-olds. They would race on a hill to be named later.
On May 27, the News reported first prize in the national derby would be a four-year scholarship valued at about $2,000 to any state university. Second- and third-place finishers would receive 1936 Chevrolets. Chevrolet also would present each city champion with a wrist watch.
Contestants soon followed. “Robert Kerr, 13, … holds the honor of being the first under the wire to register for the American Legion-Chevrolet Soap Box Derby,” The News wrote June 2. “The Derby is open to any boy in the Lima district. Already six have entered from Elida, Alger and rural routes. These boys say that although they live in smaller communities they are determined to show the big city boys their dust when it comes to racing.”
Kerr also became the first boy to have a sponsor for the race: Steele’s Automotive Parts. In the summer of 1936, many boys couldn’t afford to build cars on their own; although cars could cost no more than $10, sponsors were needed. “A number of boys, whose parents have announced they are unable financially to build racing cars, have left their names at the registration booth and will be entered in the race by various sponsors,” according to the June 7 edition of the paper. “At least 100 boys are expected to come in under the wire.”
On June 10, 14-year-old Robert Farsht, a soon-to-be freshman at Central High School, told the News he had some “good ideas” on constructing a fast car. “Farsht is planning to streamline his racer. ‘I’d like to make a fish-tail slip-streamed rear end on it,’ he explained. Robert also is intending to use hard rubber wheels which he believes will roll faster because of less road resistance.”
Interest in the derby grew daily. In mid-June, the News noted, “with the supply of ball-bearing wheels and wooden boxes from which to make automobiles rapidly decreasing in the Lima district, 19 more boys signed up Monday for the Chevrolet-American Legion Soap Box Derby.” Eventually, 110 boys signed up.
All over town, the news reported June 21, soap box racers were under construction. “What knowledge the boys may lack in construction they are making up for in enthusiasm. … In a number of cases, boys residing in various localities have banded together to exchange information.”
Derby day was set for July 23 with car inspection July 27 in the Public Square.
“Many of the cars showed signs of real engineering ingenuity,” the News wrote. “One entry, built by a Lakewood Avenue boy, was the most extreme example of streamlining in the line-up. The youth said he patterned his car after one made by Sir Malcolm Campbell, famous English speed champion. His car had a sweepingly slanted hood with center fin and slip-streamed tail.”
Shorter on the streamlining but longer on ingenuity was an entry from Alger which, according to the article, “was made from parts taken from a farm disk harrow. The boy’s father said the lad had been ‘training’ for the race by driving a tractor while cultivating 200 acres of corn.”
The day after the inspection, the News announced the derby would be held “in the southwest sector of Faurot Park on a portion of the Spencerville Road, starting where it intersects with South Woodlawn Avenue at the entrance to Woodlawn Cemetery.” Fifty-five boys qualified for the Derby. Robert Richards was listed as the 55th qualifier.
“Under threatening skies and to the cheers of 10,000 spectators, Bob Richards piloted his coaster down the 1,200-foot course in Faurot Park in 32½ seconds to nose out Bernard Army, 12, in the first annual American Legion-Chevrolet boyhood classic,” the News reported July 24.
Richards’ path to Akron was not smooth; there was a dog in it. Richards struck a stray dog after completing a preliminary heat, scraping his cheek, chin and left arm. Worse, his car’s hard-to-come-by wheels were damaged. An already eliminated racer gave Richards his wheels. “The dog apparently was uninjured, running from the scene, yelping in terror,”according to the News.
Richards was confident going into the national race, telling the News Aug. 12, “My bus picks up speed during the last 30 yards — and that’s where I expect to take the rest of the racers. All I want now is to get there. I believe the superior coasting qualities of my speedster will do the rest.” It nearly did.
“Neighbors for blocks turned out Monday to greet Robert Richards … third place winner in the All-American Soap Box Derby at Akron in his triumphal return to Lima,” the News wrote Aug. 17. “Bearing a chromium-plated racing helmet, silver trophies, new wristwatch and a certificate entitling him to a new Chevrolet sedan, the Lima pushmobile racer smilingly told of his triumphs at the classic of boydom.”
A bigger and better Lima Soap Box Derby was expected for 1937. The June 27, 1937, edition of the News said “interest in the Lima races is running higher than last year because of Richards’ success in the national contest and realization that a local boy may be successful in the big event.”
Nearly 15,000 turned out July 22, 1937, to watch Warren Hodosko, 15, best more than 50 competitors. “The race was marked by bright but extremely hot weather that brought tar oozing from the race course,” the News wrote. “Near the end of the Class A heats … the city sent a gravel-spreading machine over the speedway that covered the gummy surface.”
Hodosko was eliminated in the second round at Akron. Lima would not send another boy to the national Derby until 1947.
Next week: The Derby returns — and this time, with girls.