Guide to Soap Box Derby

Written by Carly Hallman

Soap-box derbies usually conjure up early-20th-century visuals of unpretentious, homemade cars driven by kids and racing along a track. In some ways, those images are still relevant today, as the All-American Soap Box Derby continues its tradition of hosting races featuring gravity-powered cars steered by youths. The unique experience of creating and racing a soap-box car during childhood is one that is now influenced by a storied history and national pride. The impact of soap-box derby racing cannot be understated, as it underscored many of the economic changes that the country underwent during the derby’s heyday. While modern technology can lead to yearly modifications of its official rulebook, one thing remains the same: Soap-box derby racing is a rite of passage toward the finish line of adulthood.

Soap-Box Derby History

Myron Scott is largely credited as having popularized the soap-box derby after witnessing youths racing their own handcrafted cars in 1933. After securing the idea with a patent and winning a sponsor in Chevrolet, he took the soap-box derby to the national stage in 1934 with the All-American Soap Box Derby. It wasn’t until 1971 that girls were allowed to compete in the sport, but a few years later, in 1975, Karren Stead became the first girl to win the competition. In 1981, a new era of soap-box derby history began, as fiberglass car bodies were officially allowed. The sport’s popularity enjoyed a steady rise, and the 1990s saw youths as young as eight years old competing with ready-to-assemble car kits available for purchase.

Impact of Soap-Box Derby Racing

While the enjoyment of competition and the pride of creating one’s own vehicle are main draws of these events, the impact of soap-box derby racing on American culture has reverberated through generations. Soap-box derby racing generated excitement for automotive engineering in youths, which coincided with the country’s automotive revolution of the 20th century. The races also attracted star power, and it was not uncommon to see movie stars, television actors, and even presidents at competitions lending their support and celebrity to this cherished American pastime. Several nationally recognized brands have sponsored soap-box derbies, investing resources in the youth and their desire to engage in the American love for automobiles.

Rules and Unique Races

Typically, soap-box derby races are governed by a strict set of rules. These rules cover everything from age and weight restrictions to proper attire and conduct of competitors. Car specifications require total adherence, and any deviation from them can result in a disqualification. Despite finding its origins in the United States, a soap-box derby can be open to international competitors as well. Since the love of the sport can follow a youth well into adulthood, some organizations have taken it upon themselves to host adult versions of the races so that competitors over a certain age can continue to build cars and relive the experience.

Building a Soap-Box Racer

It could be said that for many, the most enjoyable part of a soap-box derby is the creation of the car. This personal endeavor allows competitors to take pride in building something by hand and express their creativity throughout the entire process. While many commercial kits are available for purchase that can lead to a working car being put together in only a few hours, schematics for building a car from scratch are still available to the public. Many of these blueprints can result in a car that is suitable for a derby at a fraction of the cost of a commercial kit. In some cases, these handmade cars can be built for less than $50.