FirstEnergyAll-American Soap Box Derby Countdown


Derby Spotlight - John Horner


Derby Spotlight – John Horner

John Horner knew at a young age that Soap Box Derby wasn’t just about racing. “The Derby provided me with a quest for an understanding and knowledge of how things operate and why,” said Horner.

Horner always knew he had an interest in math and science which made engineering a clear career choice for him. Being a part of the Derby, Horner was also able to spend quality time with his father building his Derby cars.John Horner

“Designing and building Soap Box Derby cars certainly had an impact on my life,” said Horner. “When I raced, the racers had to build the car themselves. I was using a table saw at the age of 11, of course with a lot of adult supervision. The work ethic needed to design my car was a skill that got me through some tough engineering courses.”

Horner’s Derby career started in 1959 and extended until 1963. The first three years he raced in the local Dallas, Texas race in Class A and B. The last two years he went on to compete in the local race in Akron, Ohio in Division 5 and Division 1, winning Division 1 in 1963 and coming in second overall, beating 410 out of 411 racers. In 1964, ABC-TV’s Wide World of Sports featured Horner in a TV broadcast filming him as he raced down the hill.

It takes a lot of time and patience when building a Soap Box Derby car. While working within the boundaries of the rule book, racers are always looking for ways seek an advantage. Every year John and his father would look at the winning cars so that they would be inspired by their designs for next year. “I learned a great deal about design methods, weight distribution, and how to reduce aerodynamic drag,” Horner said.

The Soap Box Derby, along with his father, had a tremendous influence on John in selecting his career path. “My father was a self-taught engineer at heart,” Horner said. “He taught me so much about engineering over the five years we were together building racers that it developed into a passion of mine.”

Horner graduated from the University of Akron in 1971 with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mechanical Engineering. After college, John was drafted into the Army for a few years and then later joined the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. While in Dayton he worked for the Air Force Research Laboratory where they encouraged their employees to get an advanced degree. Horner soon attended The Ohio State University where he received his Master’s Degree in Aerospace Engineering in 1984. John spent his entire career at the Air Force Research Laboratory and retired from there after 39 years as an Aerospace Engineer.

Horner attributes his knowledge of competition and his good sportsmanship to the Soap Box Derby. The Derby also helped him develop his self-esteem and motivation to accomplish his passion. Horner has received several awards but he says that there is one accomplishment the stands out the most. “Perhaps my most rewarding accomplishment was the reinstitution of the engineering co-op program at the Air Force Research Laboratory to create a stable flow of new recruits to fill impending vacancies and expose young students to opportunities in science and technologies,” said Horner. He successfully employed 100 co-ops and 50 of those received full time positions at the Air Force Research Laboratory. 


John winning the semi-final in Akron local 1963.

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John with his father posing for a newspaper article in 1963.


Johnny "Shark" in his Soap Box Derby car.


Note: This is the ninth 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)