FirstEnergyAll-American Soap Box Derby Countdown


Derby Spotlight - John Hamels

Img 2566John Hamels set to race in the first
heat of the 2013 FirstEnergy
All-American Soap Box Derby

Derby Spotlight – John Hamels

In 1934 the very first All-American Soap Box Derby World Championship was held in Dayton, Ohio and John Hamels had the privilege of being a participant. Hamels lived in Buffalo, N.Y. where he heard that there was going to be a Soap Box Derby race in his hometown. This unique event piqued his interest so much that with the assistance of his older brother, Eddie, they built his very first Derby car. The Buffalo Courier Express sponsored the local event that would qualify racers to compete in the World Championship race.

Hamels was astonished by just racing in the Soap Box Derby in Buffalo. He went on to win the race and go on to qualify for the first ever AASBD in Dayton. “Going to Dayton for the main event was quite the nerve-racking experience,” said Hamels. He was only 11 years old going to a new state without his parents. It was estimated that 65,000 people would be at the event watching the racers.

At the All-American Hamels was honored when he met WWI flying Ace Captain Roscoe Turner along with thousands of other people from across the country. He made it all the way to one of the final heats before he wrecked his car. Thankfully he only suffered minor scratches but his car was unable to continue the race which required Hamels to withdraw from the competition. This didn’t stop Hamels from racing the next year. He raced in 1935 and 1936 but did not make it to the All-American race.

The Derby helped develop Hamels’s passion for cars and the new technology in them. Hamels furthered his education through the Army-Air Corps where he became a radio operator. While in the Army-Air Corps he had the opportunity to tour most of Germany and explore the culture. He went on to work for the very same company that sponsored the Derby in his youth, Chevrolet. He spent the majority of his career working for General Motors at the Chevrolet plant as a machine operator building engine parts for Chevrolet cars for 30 years. He loved seeing how cars evolved over the years with new technology. Hamels is now happily retired from the Chevrolet plant and enjoys looking back on the memories of when he raced in the Soap Box Derby.

In 2013 and 2014 John was invited to Akron, Ohio as an honorary Grand Marshal to join the kick-off races for the FirstEnergy All-American Soap Box Derby. One of his special memories was that he had the opportunity to hold the trophy that he came so close to winning in 1934.

Hamels attributes his good sportsmanship, ethics and hard work to the Soap Box Derby. Building a Derby car was no easy task back in 1934 since all the cars were self-made with their own design and with no “how to” kit. “The Derby helped me mature and take what I did seriously,” said Hamels.

Hamels and his family continue to stay up-to-date on the Derby. In fact just this past summer he had plans to attend the 79th running of the FirstEnergy All-American Soap Box Derby before health issues forced him to change his plans.

Img 4378

John Hamels being pulled by his brother,
Ed, at the 1934 All-American Soap Box
Derby in Dayton, Ohio.

Img 2664

John Hamels is in the center car getting
ready to race at the 1934 All-American
Soap Box Derby in Dayton, Ohio. 

Img 4381

John Hamels on the far right.

Note: This is the tenth in a series of spotlights on former Derby racers who have gone on to study/work in a STEM related field. If you know of someone who we could spotlight please let us know at 

Past Spotlight Features

Nicole Stout - Spotlight (January, 2016)

Michael Gallo - Spotlight (February, 2016) 

Todd Hinton - Spotlight (March, 2016)

Alan Uhler - Spotlight (April, 2016)

Kristi Murphy - Spotlight (May, 2016)

James Fell - Spotlight (June, 2016)

Michael J. Corson, Jr. - Spotlight (July, 2016)

David Reid - Spotlight (August, 2016)

John Horner - Spotlight (September, 2016)