By David Fong
Regional Sports Content Manager
TROY — At their apex, the annual soap box derby races in Troy were the second-most watched sport in Troy, trailing only Troy’s beloved high school football team.
A generation ago, the annual races down Drury Lane were every bit as big a Fourth of July tradition as barbecues and fireworks — and thousands flocked to see Troy’s pre-teen and teenage racers guide their homemade cars down the city’s steepest hill. It became an event at which residents came to see and be seen. For Troy’s dignitaries and business leaders, an appearance at the soap box derby races became a mandatory public appearance.
“It was a huge deal,” said 1984 Troy High School graduate Mark Scherr, a two-time race participant who now resides in Georgia. “It’s too bad they don’t have it anymore. I don’t think a lot of people realize what a big deal it was. All the racers got to be in the Fourth of July parade. The Corvette Club in Troy let us ride in their cars for the parade — they would pull out the t-tops or whatever — and they we would go over to the races.”
As it would turn out, however, fame was fleeting for the soap box derby — not only in Troy, but on the national level, as well. While the national All-American Soap Box Derby would survive its ups and downs and still is being run today, the soap box derby in Troy would last roughly three decades before finally fizzling out in the early 1980s like a Fourth of July sparkler that had reached the end of the line.
Nobody could have predicted how big the derby would get in 1933, when Myron Scott, a photographer for the Dayton Daily News, saw a number of local boys racing cars made from scraps of lumber and discarded baby-buggy wheels and put together an impromptu race featuring 19 participants. Later that year, Scott put together another race — this time offering a cash prize — and, according to published reports, 362 boys showed up to take part.
The following year, the first official All-American Soap Box Derby race was held in Dayton. The next year, in 1935, the race was moved to Akron, which featured a more hilly terrain. That same year, a car went off the course and crashed into NBC sportscaster Graham McNamee, which only heightened the interest.
In 1957, Troy got its first taste of derby fever.
That year, Rev. Earl Dale — a member of the Optimist Club of Troy — organized the Opti-Derby, a local version of the All-American Soap Box Derby race. With the help of Troy’s four Optimist Clubs, Dale set up a race that featured 25 racers and took place on Drury Lane. Mike Hatfield won the first official Opti-Derby race in Troy. The next year, the race moved to Westgate and Ridge.
In 1963, the derby moved back to Drury Lane, where it would stay for the remainder of its run. That same year, under the direction of Lloyd A. Shroyer, Troy also became an official part of the All-American Derby, allowing the winner of the race each year to participate in the national competition in Akron. Christopher Rudy won the race and represented Troy that first year competing under the official All-American Derby banner.
Thanks in large part to the volunteer efforts of the Optimist Clubs of Troy — which then included Morning, Noon, Evening and Twilight versions — the derby continued to grow each year not only in terms of advanced technology, but also in terms of the number of participants and the number of spectators Eventually, McGraw Chevrolet and the Troy Daily News became corporate sponsors of the event, which began to annually draw in excess of 5,000 spectators and became an integral part of Troy’s Fourth of July Celebration.
“It got to be a huge deal,” said Arthur D. “Ozzie” Haddad, a Noon Optimist Club member and former Miami County Engineer, assistant director of the Ohio Department of Transportation, Director of Public Service and Safety and Miami County Commissioner. In addition to helping the Optimists run the event, Haddad’s three sons — Kenneth, Raymond and David — raced a total of nine different cars in Troy’s soap box derby. “People would line up six rows deep all along the race route. “We had to move it back to Drury Lane because it was a wider street and the bigger pit area up near Summitt allowed for more activity.”
There was plenty of pre-race activity, as well.
“On race day, we could the ramp up and set up the course. It was quite an involved process. The day before the race, we had a number of Optimist club members that would set up the tires we used along the curbs to protect the racers and the spectators. The cars were inspected and then impounded the Saturday before the race. The drivers and cars together couldn’t weigh more than 250 pounds. The weight limit was later changed to 260 pounds.
“At the finish line, we had a beam of light, which actually served two purposes. The first was for photo finishes. When the rider hit the beam of light, it would set off a camera — I believe it was a Kodak camera — that would take a picture the three judges could look at in case it came down to a photo finish. The beam of light also operated a clock. When the riders crossed the finish line, it would complete a circuit that was tied into the clock that started at the top of the hill and stop the clock. It was all pretty state-of-the-art technology back then.”
Troy’s soap box derby would reach its zenith in 1969, when a record-setting 99 racers would participate in the event. That year, the race was won by Gary Shroyer, who would go on to Akron and place fourth in the national competition behind racers from Texas, New Hampshire and California. Five years later, Gary’s younger brother Todd would place ninth in Akron. In 1981, Troy’s Mary Begovich would place eighth in Akron.
“Our Troy winners were always fitted for a uniform before they went to Akron,” Haddad said. “The uniform included a jacket, white T-shirt and white pants. We would bus our kids up there in our uniforms and when we got to Akron, people could always tell Troy was there because our kids were in their uniforms. Our kids were always very well-behaved and were nice to every one they met. It really made you proud to be from Troy and to have the Troy kids representing the city.”
At the same time the race was growing in Troy, it was growing on the national level, as well. The race would become a staple of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” television program. As the soap box derby races and subsequent attention grew on the national level, however, so did the money involved. While the Optimist Clubs of Troy were strict about making sure the cars involved in the local races followed strict guidelines that limited parent involvement and the amount of money that was to be spent on the cars, no such rules were in place in the early days of the national race.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, corporate sponsors became more heavily involved — and with large sums of money at stake — not to mention the prestige of appearing on national television — perhaps it was inevitable that some racers and their families started pulling out all the stops to give the young racers (soap box derby participants ranged from ages 11-15) to ensure victory.
In 1973, the first scandal broke at the national All-American Soap Box Derby race.
That year, a 14-year-old drive named Jimmy Gronen of Boulder, Colo. was found to have used an electromagnetic device in his car to help him win the race. Following Gronen’s victory, an X-ray revealed the electromagnet in the nose of his car. When activated at the starting line, the electromagnet would pull the car forward by attracting it to the steel paddle used to start the race. Gronen would activate the electromagnet by leaning his helmet against the backrest of his seat, which activated its power source. While most races were determined by a distance of 1-3 feet, Gronen won his early heats by an average of 20-30 feet, arousing suspicion.
Two days following the event, Gronen was stripped of his title and it was awarded to runner-up Bret Yarborough. According to a story in the Akron Beacon Journal, Gronen lost his $7,500 college scholarship. Derby officials asked him to return the trophy and silk jacket he received as the champion. He refused, destroying the trophy and eventually giving away the jacket. His uncle and legal guardian, Bob Lange, an engineer who was the mastermind behind the scheme, was was indicted for contributing to the delinquency of a minor and paid a $2,000 settlement to an Akron Boys Club.
While the scandal rocked the All-American Derby in Akron, Haddad is quick to point out Troy’s derby never had such underhanded schemes.
“The No. 1 rule we had was that the racer had to build his or her own car,” Haddad said. “We really stressed that. Every year in January, we would have our sign-ups. In February, we would have an open house and talk about the schedule for building the car. They would buy the kits and weren’t allowed to spend more than $40 on parts. They could get sponsors that would pay for the lettering on the logos on their cars. The Saturday before the race, we would impound all the cars so they could be examined the week before and make sure nothing was going on.
“With the case of the kid for Colorado, his cousin had won before and his uncle had sent the car out to Cal Tech to have it tested in their wind tunnel. Some kids were spending anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 on their cars.”
Troy’s participation would remain steady throughout the 70s. Following the 99 racers that took part in the 1969 race, 96 took part the next year. In 1976 — the year the nation celebrated its bicentennial, there was another spike as 98 racers participated. That would be the final time the race would ever see more than 70 participants, however. By the early 1980s, less than 50 racers were participating in the event. Soon after, the race eventually died out and has never been revived.
“It just got to the point where it did not draw the crowds,” Haddad said. “It did not draw the drivers or the spectators. It really waned in the final years.”
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact reason why the derby wore off in Troy … although the fact it died off in the early 1980s may offer some clues. That was right around the same time Atari released its popular Atari 2600 video game console and also around the same time most homes in television were being wired for cable television.
“Who knows? That could be a part of it,” Haddad said. “Maybe it was kids getting more involved with sports at that time. One thing I do know is that while the kids built the cars, it also took a lot of family involvement. In our case, we had three kids building cars. From the time they started in January until the time they finished, they were working on those cars every day. At that age, there are some, but not many, kids who are that motivated to get out there and do that by themselves every day. A lot of times the parents had to be involved in terms of motivating them. You are also talking about not taking any vacations or not going on spring break or anything like that. It took a big commitment from the family.”
For the Haddad family, that involvement was the beginning of three extremely successful careers in business and industry.
Kenneth is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati, an electrical engineer with Motorola and was part of the team that developed the first cellular phone. Raymond, a graduate of Cincinnati, an aerospace engineer and was chief engineer and director of the Chinook helicopter. David, the youngest, is a graduate of Harvard University who became became vice president of Disney’s Children’s Publications. David was also at Mattel toys, where he served as vice president of the Barbie line and is now the CEO for a division of Warner Brothers.
“I think the soap box derby was a good thing for everyone involved,” Haddad said. “I know a lot of people really looked forward to it every year.”
Contact David Fong at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @thefong