Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Soap Box Derby

Brackets from 1972 Youngstown-Mahoning County Soap Box Derby, Youngstown Vindicator, Saturday July 23, 1972 (via Google News Archive)

I lived just off the hill on Mahoning Avenue on Portland Avenue. For several years, the local Soap Box Derby ran down that hill. We had front row seats, watching drivers around our own age accelerate only by the force of gravity in home built unpowered racers. They would be moving pretty fast by the time they got to us (they can reach speeds up to at least 30 mph).

In later years, the race was moved to East Midlothian Boulevard, starting just east of South Avenue. In 1972, the race was held on July 23, and the July 22 Vindicator had a special section devoted to the race. The local Jaycees and the Poland Knights of Columbus organizations mobilized the volunteers who organized the race and prepared the course, including fencing and protective hay bales under the direction of Bob Brown, race director. Boardman Supply spread gravel in the runoff area to help with braking. Youngstown Building Materials built a reviewing stand at the finish line.

The Jaycees also organized a series of clinics where young drivers received tips on body construction, brakes, steering, bulkheads, floor boards, and the tools they’d need and how to use them. Rules emphasized both safety and equal opportunities. Materials could cost no more than $40! The car and its occupant could not weigh more than 250 pounds made of wood or metal worked by the contestant. There were requirements for the cockpit, steering, and brakes (a current example of these rules may be seen in the current national rule book). By the way, the term “soap box” arose because the racers were originally made from wooden soap crates.

Race day began with a parade featuring a baton and drum corps, the Buckeye Elks Band, Grotto clowns and a Borden Burger float. Mayor Jack Hunter was one of the honorary judges. Races would be run in heats with two racers in each heat. According to the bracket above, the overall winner would have to win six heats.

There were a number of instances where racing was a family affair. There were two instances of three brothers racing and four pairs of brothers. The Vindicator section featured boys from Youngstown, Austintown, and Boardman, including a five year veteran, Ken Erhardt. One thing I noticed was that only boys are mentioned. The first girl to compete at a national level was Becky Philips Mahoney. It was in 1971, just a year before this race. In 1975, a girl won the overall national competition in Akron.

That was the goal all the racers were shooting for, to represent their community at the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron. The top nine winners in Akron received a total of over $30,000 in scholarships from Chevrolet. Chevrolet was also a local sponsor and all the local dealerships had ads in the section. In 1972, the local winner, who first won the Class A competition against other 13 to 15 year olds was Alan Rovder, who won his heat in 29.07 seconds against the Class B winner (11 and 12 year olds) Ken Repasky. Rovder spent 250 hours building his car.

This year’s national Soap Box Derby is July 23, 2022 in Akron, covered in this story by a Cleveland TV station. It is not clear to me whether the Soap Box Derby is still being run in the Mahoning Valley. The most recent Vindicator story online was from 2009. However WKBN covered the story of an Austintown girl who won the Super Stock Division in the Portage County Soap Box Derby in 2021. I suspect the community organization support and corporate sponsorship necessary is probably lacking. Perhaps this is one more example of it “taking a village.” I suspect the experience of mentoring and the work of building a racer has shaped the future of more than a few who have competed.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

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