FirstEnergyAll-American Soap Box Derby Countdown


Soap Box Derby Gets Permanent Home In 1936; Depression-Era Work Program Builds Derby Downs

1936 New Track Built Resize

Officials looking over the site that would
become Derby Downs in 1936 include Jim
Schlemmer (far left), sports editor of the
Akron Beacon Journal, Myron Scott (center),
founder and general manager of the
All-American Soap Box Derby, and Bain
“Shorty” Fulton (far right), manager of
Akron Fulton Airport. The three led the
effort to create a permanent home for the
Soap Box Derby championships.
(Photo: General Motors)

 1938 Grandstands

Permanent wooden grandstands were
constructed at Derby Downs in 1938, for
the fifth All-American Soap Box Derby.
Those stands stood for more than 60
years, until being replaced by the current
steel structures in 1999.
(Photo: Akron-Summit County Public Library,
Fulton Collection)

It was 80 years ago this summer that workers from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) transformed what was initially designed to be a City of Akron-operated park and ski run into Derby Downs, home of the world-famous Soap Box Derby for 77 of its 79 years.

The idea for the Soap Box Derby had originated in Dayton, Ohio, when newsman Myron Scott covered a race of boy-built cars in his community in 1933. He copyrighted the idea and found national funding from Chevrolet Motor Company, which agreed to sponsor the first All-American Soap Box Derby in Dayton in 1934. Thirty-four cities sent local winners for that first championship race.

The following year, Akron civic leaders convinced program organizers to move the event to Akron because of its hilly terrain and central location. That race was held on a public street: Tallmadge Avenue on the east side of the city. The 1935 race drew 52 entrants and more than 50,000 spectators. A mishap during the competition brought much attention to the youth racing event. Popular NBC radio personalities Graham McNamee and Tom Manning were broadcasting the action from trackside when an out-of-control racecar driven by Paul Brown of Oklahoma City struck the broadcasters. News of the accident and McNamee’s subsequent hospitalization in Akron made news headlines around the world.

Because of the growing popularity of the event, community leaders set about to find a larger and more permanent home for the Soap Box Derby. Helping to spearhead that effort were Bain “Shorty” Fulton, manager of Akron’s Fulton Airport, and Jim Schlemmer, sports editor of the Akron Beacon Journal. With the support of city officials, they scouted venues with the hills necessary to accommodate the gravity racecars. As the decision was announced for the chosen site, then-Mayor Lee D. Schroy proclaimed “It is fortunate that the new ski run at the airport is so ideally suited to the needs of the Soap Box Derby.” 

That announcement came on July 29, 1936—and the All-American Soap Box Derby ran on Derby Downs less than a month later!

WPA workers, most of whom previously were unemployed because of the Depression, worked feverishly on landscaping, setting up rented grandstands and bleachers, as well as building a two-deck bridge over the finish line and other chores to create the racing venue. Fulton took on the track manager’s role, including overseeing the paving of the track. A total of 1,600 feet was paved with 1,175 feet dedicated to the race course and the remainder above the starting line for staging racecars and beyond the finish line for car run-out.

While work was being completed on the facility, other workers were preparing for the many newspaper, film and radio journalists expected to cover the race. A dedicated two-way telephone line was installed from the finish line bridge to the starting line. Leased cables were laid along the track to accommodate both the track sound system and for broadcasters.  Teletype equipment was installed for use by media. Mayor Schroy invited mayors of all cities in Ohio to be his guest on race day.

Race day arrived. On Sunday, August 16, 1936, Ohio Governor Martin L. Davey and Mayor Schroy welcomed a huge crowd estimated at nearly 100,000 at what later became an Akron—and national—icon: Derby Downs. Broadcasters Manning and McNamee returned to broadcast the race (McNamee had fully recovered from his injuries at the All-American race the previous year). They were joined to celebrate the new track by 1934 Indianapolis 500 winner Bill Cummings and St. Louis Cardinals players Dizzy Dean and Daffy Dean.

A pre-race parade featured 11 bands, city and Chevrolet officials and, of course, the 117 boys who were participating in the third All-American Soap Box Derby. Box seats were $1 and bleacher tickets were 25 or 50 cents. Parking was 15 cents. 

The world was about to learn a lot more about the Soap Box Derby and Akron. The newly constructed press box was designed to hold 300 journalists. On race day, an overflow crowd of more than 500 newspaper reporters, magazine writers, photographers and newsreel camera operators covered the race activities. 

By day’s end, Herbert Muench, Jr. 14, of St. Louis, was crowned Soap Box Derby champion with a winning time of 28.4 seconds. He won a $2,000 four-year college scholarship. The story of his victory was seen around the world, thanks to the hundreds of journalists filing stories. On that day, the first-ever wire transmission of a photograph sent from Akron went to a Detroit newspaper. Planes carrying photos and film flew from the nearby Fulton Airport to Cleveland for transmission from wire service outlets there.

Derby Downs was deemed a success. It has remained the home of the All-American Soap Box Derby ever since that first race in August 1936. The City of Akron continues to own the land, which leases it to the Soap Box Derby organization for $1 per year. There have been many changes over the years, including to the length of the track from its original 1,175 feet. In 1946, for the first race after the hiatus during World War II, the length of the race course was reduced to 975.4 feet. From 1971 through 1999, the track was 953.75 feet. It was extended to its current length of 989.4 feet in 2000.

The first permanent wooden grandstands were added in 1938, and were replaced by the current steel structures in 1999.  The headquarters building at the bottom of the track was built in 1992. 

Again, all eyes of the Soap Box Derby world will be on Derby Downs on Saturday, July 16, for the 79th running of the FirstEnergy All-American Soap Box Derby. Derby fans can reflect on that whirlwind of activities 80 years ago that turned what had been created as a ski run into the mecca for gravity racing.

ACKNOWLEDGEMTS: Research for this article included Downhill Heroes by Ralph Iula, Akron and Summit County by Karl H.  Grismer and various news stories appearing in the Akron Beacon Journal in 1935 and 1936, from the Special Collections Department of the Akron-Summit County Library, as well as a newsreel entitled 1936 All-American Soap Box Derby produced for Chevrolet by the Jam Handy Organization.

1936 Aa
Cars getting ready to race in the 1936 All-American Soap Box Derby

1936 Aa2
1936 racer John Tabor from Pittsburgh, Pa. 

1936 Aa31936 racer Herman Brown from Macon, Ga.