For an organization founded in 1934, this year's All-American Soap Box Derby boasts several new things: new CEO; new title sponsor; new hall of fame and museum; and new champ's lounge, among several other features. The 75th FirstEnergy All-American Soap Box Derby kicked off July 16 with the arrival of about 450 young racers, ages 7 to 17, from 40 states, Canada, Germany, Japan and New Zealand.
The local and rally champions will open race week with the annual welcoming parade in downtown Akron. It will extend from Canal Park Stadium to Lock 3 Park for racer introductions during the Derby Family Festival.
The first race event took place July 13, the third annual United Way Corporate Challenge Derby. Seven local companies paid $1,250 each to participate with proceeds benefiting the Derby and United Way of Summit County. First place winner was thermoplastics maker, Multibase of Copley Township. Other winners were All State Insurance, second place, and Bridgestone Americas, third. Also competing were Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. (best overall design), Arcadis, Bober Markey Fedorovich and Co., and National Lime and Stone. The top three winners will compete again next Saturday.
Joe Mazur has been president and chief executive officer of the Derby since March 2011, and his youthful exuberance and enthusiasm for the cause has helped to turn the organization around and put it on solid footing again. "The key to the turnaround was FirstMerit pulled the plug. That was the greatest thing that could happen to the Derby," Mazur told the Akronist. "We're moving towards the right direction."
When asked if things would be, from this point forward, uphill from here, he said, "It's so funny, it can be looked at both ways, it's uphill because it's going good. Right? Or it's downhill because we got over a hump. Both ways you can look at it because the future is bright.
"Our organization is extremely grateful for the support of our new title sponsor FirstEnergy Corp., as well as the continuing support from the city of Akron, the Greater Akron Chamber and business and community leaders," Mazur said in a press release. Major sponsors are: Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. ($30,000 scholarship for first place); Myers Industries (pit crews at Topside); Rent-A-Center (Champ's Lounge); City of Akron (breakfast); Golden Corral (lunch); and AAA (education race). Mazur added "Saturday [July 14] was the corporate Thrill of the Hill Sponsorship Appreciation Day for all of our supporters. There was a steel drum band and Old Carolina BBQ. All of the sponsors received plaques. Those are folks who've stepped up and said they will be a part of turning the Derby around and we wanted to be sure to give them a day."
The new museum is located at the Topside entrance to Derby Downs off George Washington Boulevard. On display are 77 historical cars plus other memorabilia. Under the cars, suspended from overhead, and above the cars on the floor, the wall is lined with plaques of the champions and hall of fame honorees. "It's a work in process," Mazur said. Included is a replica of one of the first cars to race in 1933 in Dayton, Robert Gravett's car, which became the Derby's official emblem.
A back door of the warehouse with the museum opens onto a panoramic view of the Akron Fulton Airport and the Goodyear air dock. Right there, next to the building, is the new Champ's Lounge. The lounge area consists of a carnival tent with picnic tables, refrigerators, Xboxes and TV screens displaying the action from the bottom of the hill. "One of the things I heard last year was how people did not know the results of the heats and would call family members watching at home to find out who won. This way they can follow the results," said Mazur.
"Plus now they are out of the sun," Mazur explained. "The kids and their car handlers were out on the street outside of the work area because we don't let everyone in at the same time to work on the cars. We wanted the kids and the parents to have somewhere to go and be comfortable. There is a park-like area up there that we've converted to the champ lounge. When I started here, people needed to repair their cars...95 degrees out, they're on blacktop, they're on their knees...it's burnin'...it's hot. I said, 'These people come from all over the world and it's uncomfortable for them.' So I said, 'We're putting a tent up!' and everybody looked at me like I was crazy.
"Now we have a 60- by 60-foot tent up there that will make the racer's life easier and we'll be able to have parties and functions all weekend under there," Mazur added. "This year is the start of this area where the kids are happy to go to, it's a place to hang out. Before, they were shoved out on the street."
Also new this year is a Mini-All-American Soap Box Derby race. "This is similar to the Cub Scout racing program, the Pinewood Derby," said Mazur. "When participants arrive they will receive a small wood, metal and plastic race car they can decorate and race."
The Derby has not been without some controversy in the past. In 1973, 14 year-old Jimmy Gronen of Boulder, Colo., was stripped of his title two days after winning the race when it was discovered he concealed an electro-magnet in the nose of the car. Leaning back on the headrest activated the magnet. His wheels had been replaced after chemicals were found to have been applied to the rubber, causing the rubber to swell and reducing the rolling resistance of the tires. The magnet gave a boost to the car when the steel starting gate was dropped down. The gate has since been replaced with an aluminum one to prevent this. Plus, now officials examine each car before and after the race.
The first All-American Soap Box Derby was run on Burkhardt Hill in Dayton, Ohio in 1934 where the winner was Robert Turner, of Muncie, Ind. The event moved to Akron the following year, where it has taken place annually except for a four-year hiatus during World War II. Derby Downs, located in the southeast section of Akron, was built in 1936.
To learn more and to follow a live webcast of the race day action, July 21, visit: www.aasbd.org.