Cheater Car and nose x-ray.
Cheater Car and nose x-ray.

World's Most Infamous Soap Box Derby Car

Field review by the editors.

Akron, Ohio

If 14-year-old James Gronen had built his car for the Soap Box Derby today, he might have been hailed by some as a "disrupter," a Mark Zuckerberg of mobile innovation, a kid who refused to lose, who dared to break the rules to win.

Unfortunately, he built his car in 1973, and all he got for it was decades of infamy.

James's car, designed to cheat, was innocently sponsored by the Jaycees of Boulder, Colorado. Hidden in its nose was an electromagnet that yanked the car forward when the metal starting gate fell, providing an unorthodox competitive edge and sending the car hurtling down the hillside track to a national championship victory.

Looking down the Soap Box Derby track.
Looking down the Soap Box Derby track.

Looking back from a perspective of over 40 years, said Joe Mazur, president of the All American Soap Box Derby, James and his car embodied the Derby's goals of workmanship, perseverance, and the spirit of competition.

But the car also ruined the Derby's image of wholesomeness and fairness, and for years it was kept hidden, regarded as a disgrace.

Now, however, it's back on public display as part of the All-American Soap Box Derby Hall of Fame and Museum at Derby Downs, a work-in-progress soap box derby shrine whose ultimate goal is to display every single Soap Box Derby national champion dating to 1934 -- even the cheater car.

Cars displayed on ceiling.
Cars displayed on ceiling.

The museum, spread across two buildings at the top of Derby Downs hill, has the difficult task of exhibiting hundreds of cars in a way that keeps the floor clear for the all of the new cars that arrive each year for the big race every summer. Soap Box Derby cars hang from the walls, and even upside down from the ceiling, to the surprise of some past champions, said Joe. Plaques honor every national winner, and a gaudy electric sign from the early 1950s casts a cheery glow.

The "magnet car," as it's known at the museum, is displayed with an x-ray that shows the electromagnet still in its nose, like a Warren Commission exhibit from the JFK assassination. Joe lifted a panel behind the headrest, revealing the hidden switch that flipped on the magnet at the starting line.

"It was most creative; an ingenious way to win," he conceded; clearly wrong, yet it celebrated the Derby's encouragement of teamwork between adults and children (James had help from his uncle), and it highlighted the Derby's dream to spur development in science, technology, engineering, and math. "You could say it was the coolest car," said Joe, with the same kind of dark fascination we find in gangsters and lawbreakers.

Soap Box Derby emblem sign.

Over forty years have passed since the cheater car rocked the Derby; now the Derby seems content to give it a place within its historical timeline. On the day that we visited, the car was displayed between a homespun champion from 1952, built with scrap wood and duct tape, and a modern "Ultimate Speed Division" carbon fiber car, which Joe said may have cost its adult racer as much as $20,000 to build.

World's Most Infamous Soap Box Derby Car

All-American Soap Box Derby Hall of Fame and Museum at Derby Downs

Address:
1000 George Washington Blvd, Akron, OH
Directions:
All-American Soap Box Derby Hall of Fame and Museum at Derby Downs. East side of the city. On the west side of George Washington Blvd/Hwy 241, just north of E. Waterloo Rd/US Hwy 224. At the top of the hill above the airport and the giant Lockheed-Martin dirigible hangar.
Hours:
M-F 8:30-5, tours by appt. (Call to verify)
Phone:
330-733-8723
Admission:
Free
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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January 16, 2018

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