For some racers, gravity provides the power

Larry Edsall
Special to The Detroit News

From Al Kaline to Barry Sanders and from Dave DeBusschere to Gordie Howe, whether natives of the city and its surroundings or those who have played for local teams, there are numerous Detroiters enshrined in a variety of sports halls of fame.

Count Thomas Fisher among them.

You may not remember Thomas Fisher, but in 1940 the youngster from Detroit won the All-American Soap Box Derby world championship, and his racer, sponsored by The Detroit News, is among those on display in the Soap Box Derby Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio.

That’s right, there’s a Soap Box Derby Hall of Fame, and it’s an easy day trip from southeastern Michigan. The hall of fame was one of the stops on the recent ELK Charity Challenge that launched from Dearborn, and I was so impressed — even before discovering Fisher’s News-sponsored racer — that this week instead of souping up a motorized vehicle, I’m suggesting you drive down to Akron to see the soaped-up cars that use gravity as their propulsion systems.

Well, there is one exception to that setup. One of the cars on display in the hall of fame probably belongs in the hall of infamy. It had an electromagnet that pulled the car forward as the metal starting gate retracted into the track, giving it a jump on the rest of the field.

The official Soap Box Derby dates to 1934, the year after Myron Scott, a photographer for the newspaper in Dayton, saw a group of boys racing homemade cars down a hill. Scott convinced Chevrolet to sponsor the inaugural competition, which was held in Dayton. In 1935, the event moved to Akron because it was more centrally located and had better hills.

In 1936, the construction of Derby Downs on a hill overlooking the airport was done as a WPA project. There was a hiatus during World War II, but boys resumed racing in 1946. Girls were included in 1971, with Karren Stead of Lower Bucks County, Pennsylvania, becoming the first girl champion in 1975.

The competition with various classes — stock, super stock, masters, etc. — and in some years five of the six champions have been girls.

The hall of fame, which is open with no admission fee Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. is in a building near the top of the Derby Downs hill. Inside, more than 100 championship-winning cars are on display, some mounted vertically on walls, some — including Thomas Fisher’s — hanging upside down beneath a storage loft, some sitting on the floor and others on shelves.

Other Michigan champions have been Greg Cardinal of Flint (1978 Senior), Russ Yurk of Flint (1979 Junior), Mike Burdgick of Flint (1983 Senior), Paul Greenwald of Saginaw (1991 Kit car), Michael Flynn of Detroit (2001 Masters), and Andrew Feldpausch of Saginaw (2007 Super Stock).

You can see the evolution of the vehicles’ design, photos of all the winning racers, and other memorabilia in the Hall of Fame.

But it turns out that Soap Box Derby and Derby Downs isn’t just for kids.

If you plan ahead, and go with a group, you can arrange a track rental and race adult-sized cars down the hill. The cars are very basic — a boxy body, four wheels, a small wire-loop steering wheel and a wooden pedal that depresses the brake — a flat shoe-like device — that contacts the track and slows the vehicle after you cross the finish line. Racers wear bicycle helmets, which are provided.

If you’re more into watching than racing, the championships this year are scheduled for July 6, with some 450 racers qualifying for the finals from the United States, Asia and Europe. Michigan racers qualify through U.S. Region 5, which has its event scheduled for June 4 in Forest Park, Illinois.

For more information, visit www.soapboxderby.org.

Larry Edsall is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. You can reach him at ledsall@cox.net.