Jim Shulman | Baby Boomer Memories: Soap Box Derby drew thousands to local hills

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When we were kids we built hot rods out of boards, a wooden crate and old carriage wheels or roller skates. These were often called soap box racers, as many of the crates used in earlier days were ones in which soap had been packed.

We would take turns pushing each other as the driver steered with a rope tied to ends of a turning front axle. If you lived near a hill, gravity would take over and do the work of the kid pushing.

The first official national competition (with cash prizes) of youngsters with homemade vehicles was organized in 1933 in Dayton, Ohio. This was the start of the All American Soap Box Derby that began the following year. In 1935 the event moved to Akron, Ohio and has been there since.

This year was the 80th competition, missing only the World War II years of 1942-45. The Soap Box Derby was designed to be a father/son activity for the two to work together to build efficient race cars.

Gravity powered, the racers can reach up to 35 miles an hour. Over the years rules have evolved resulting in the design and details of the vehicles becoming more standardized. The racers are now largely built from kits that range from $465 to $730 each.

The first Soap Box Derby planned near the Berkshires was to be in Shelburne Falls in 1938. However, it was canceled as the town lacked a suitable smooth place to hold the competition.

The first Berkshire event was scheduled in Pittsfield in 1947 for boys under 15. The Lions Club agreed to be the sponsor of the race down the West Street hill. It is not clear if it actually took place. In 1950, the Adams Park Commission planned a similar event at the Forest Park Country Club hill down to Russell Field.

In August 1954, a Soap Box Derby was held in North Adams and sponsored by the Eagles fraternal organization. It was limited to 11- to 15-year-old boys and was on Church Street near the college. There was a competition held in 1960 as part of the Fall Foliage Festival, but it was not part of the national program.

From 1962 through 1967, Berkshire County boys, 11 to 16, participated in the official Soap Box Derby held in Pittsfield with prizes of $500. (Girls were only allowed to compete for a "Soap Box Queen Contest" by selling stick back pins for the title and $25.)

The 1962 local derby winner, Bill May, had broken his ankle right after the win and was unable to attend the national competition. Second-place runner-up, Ned Dripps, drove May's vehicle in Akron, but did not win.

The national winners received awards that year that included $30,000 in scholarships. The Pittsfield Jaycees and the Berkshire Motor Sports Car Club were the local event sponsors. By 1967, several thousand people lined West Street behind hay bale barriers to watch 50 young boys race their cars down the hill past the old train station.

In 1968, with West Street in the throes of urban renewal, the race was moved to Church Hill in Lenox. In 1969, the Pittsfield Jaycees decided not to sponsor the event and thus was the end of the competitions in the Berkshires. That year eight Berkshire boys unsuccessfully participated in the Albany Soap Box races.

The races now have three divisions that are based on differences in the structure of the vehicles and the size and experience of the drivers. These include: stock racer for smaller kids age 7-13, super stock racer for bigger kids age 9-18, and master racer for more experienced drivers age 10-20.

There are two categories for each division based on those who won local contests and those that earned points in several different rallies. Thus six final races altogether with the top three winners in each race receiving scholarships.

In 1971 girls were first allowed to participate in the Soap Box Derby. This year, four of the six first-place winners were girls.

Most interesting was that the second-place winner of the very first derby in 1933 was a girl. However, it was not revealed until she removed her helmet.

Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native living in Ohio, is the founder of the Berkshire Carousel and author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." If you have a memory of a Berkshire baby-boom landmark or event you'd like to share or read about, please write Jim at jesjmskali@aol.com.

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