At a New York school, Soap Box Derby racing is on the curriculum


One wouldn’t ordinarily consider the Bronx as part of the country’s racing heartland. But in the insular, yet passionate, universe that revolves around soapbox cars, these neighborhoods in the northeast part of the rugged borough have become a fulcrum for soapbox competition.

With the help of a recent New York Times story about the teens and pre-teens who build their own vehicles to compete — they hope — in July’s Soap Box Derby World Championship in Akron, Ohio, racing on four small wheels has become an ultimate quest.

Times reporter Bernard Mokam centered his piece in the parking lot of Public School 111 in the Baychester neighborhood, where one recent morning about 30 soapbox derby teams, competitive elementary and middle schoolers and their teachers, assembled to continue the chase for the championship. This year, more than 50 racers from 31 schools are competing.

The event this summer, officially known as the FirstEnergy All-American Soap Box Derby World Championship, attracts nearly 400 contestants from around the world. There are more than a hundred cities where drivers vie for the title of “local champion” and the opportunity to race in Akron on this track:

All of the local races and rallies are posted on the organization’s site here. “Race Week” in Akron runs from Sunday, July 14, to Saturday, July 20. Specific information about those days, the scheduled activities and tickets can be found here.

Racing by gravity — which is what soap boxes do — dates backs to kids tossing go-karts down hills in the 1930s. Myron Scott of the Dayton Daily News, who photographed a group of young men with their homemade rides, sensed a publicity opportunity back then and eventually convinced the Chevrolet brand to sponsor a nationwide competition.

The first All-American Soap Box Derby race was held on August 19, 1934, watched by a crowd estimated at 45,000; boys from 34 cities competed in the all-day affair. Robert Turner of Muncie, Indiana, piloting a car riding on bare metal wheels with no bearings, was crowned the first All-American Champion. In 1975, Karren Stead won the World Championship, the first of many girls who would go on to claim the title, although girls had been racing in the derby for decades.

This year marks the 86th running of the race, and kids and teens ages 7 to 20 are eligible to drive in one of three divisions, decided by age.

Back in the Bronx, racing wasn’t just about the sport, the Times said, but was also “a manifestation of the science curriculum in District 11 — one of a handful of New York City districts that have turned to soapbox to engage pupils and ultimately get them excited about going to, and being in, school.”

Expenses can be high. Each soapbox car costs $1,800, which includes basic parts and related race fees. The schools in the Bronx also contribute to help pay for the winners’ trips to the championship race.

Following the team during a race, the Times found fifth-grader Jayden Trapp of P.S. 68, who faced off at the top of the hill against Valentina Ross. “In last year’s race,” the story said, “she lost in the final heat, missing out on a chance to represent P.S. 83 in Akron, Ohio. She was determined not to let that happen again. ‘You have this guilt built inside of you,’ said Valentina, a 13-year-old from the Morris Park neighborhood.”

Alas, it was not to be. The lights went green. “It was close, but Jayden outpaced Valentina, who said she was disappointed but not angry. Jayden’s burgundy soapbox car went on to victory, and this July, he will get a chance to race for the championship in Akron.”



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