The All-American Soapbox Derby was established in 1934, and reached its heyday in the 1950s, about the time I decided to compete. Soapbox Derby racers were built by kids and powered only by gravity on a downhill track. Standardized steel axles, wheels, and helmets were supplied by the national organization. There was an entrance fee, generally paid by a local business sponsor who got to paint its logo on the car. Local competitions were held in dozens of cities and the winners competed in the nationals in Akron, Ohio.
|Chet and his 1948 car.|
All of that was well and good, but my father’s passion for mechanical tinkering got the better of him. The official steel axles that came with the wheels were three-quarters of an inch square. We embedded them in wood casings, with independently suspended tops and bottoms and drilled-out cylindrical cavities near the wheels in which we embedded coil springs. A coil-spring suspension of my father’s design! The axle casings were four-inches thick, sticking out from each side of the body of the car. I didn’t grasp—at least not yet—that a spring suspension on a smooth track was of little use, and presumably was only there for the comfort of the driver, who hardly needed comfort on a ride that lasted about a minute. Those ridiculously thick axles with embedded springs surely added enough air resistance to slow me down by the fraction of a second that would cost the race. We raced in heats of three. I came in second in my inaugural plunge down Ninth Street.
|Chet at the wheel of his 1949 car.|
The skills and concepts I learned from my father out there in the family garage have served me well all my life, especially the lesson that the most beautiful contrivances are those that are most perfectly suited to their task. I can’t remember why I didn’t compete again in 1950, probably because I had become more interested in girls than in building racers, or maybe because my father had other projects on his mind. Still, I had learned a lot about what it means to be an handyman, and no doubt soapbox version 3.0 would have been even slimmer and sleeker—and painted and buffed to a fare-thee-well.