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Soap Box Derby Racer

Engineless "soap box" car operated
by Phil Lenhart in Madison's Soap Box
Derby, 1950-1952.

(Museum object #1982.173.1)

Soap Box Derby racing was a favorite pastime for many boys in the 1950s and 1960s. Every summer, boys aged 11 to 15 years were encouraged to enter local derbies for a chance to compete in the All American Soap Box Derby (AASBD) in Akron, Ohio. A 1952 Wisconsin State Journal article extolled the virtues of the sport: "Entry in the annual Soap Box Derby is a 'ticket' to one of the greatest adventures that can befall a boy. From the time he first scans an official rule book until he awaits the starting flag at the ramp on Derby Day, the Soap Box Derby boy is building, learning, and becoming a better youth." Madison's Phil Lenhart shared in this adventure from 1949 to 1952, winning one local race in 1949 and coming in second in 1950. Phil operated this derby racer from 1950 to 1952.

Myron O. Scott, a Dayton, Ohio journalist and photographer, first came up with the idea for the Soap Box Derby. In 1933, he noticed several boys racing home-built, engineless cars down a hill in Dayton and asked if they would be interested in racing for prizes. The following week, a small but enthusiastic group showed up with "cars" built from assorted materials including boxes, wooden planks, and roller skate wheels. On August 19, 1933, the first official derby featuring 362 racers was held in Dayton. After this successful event, Chevrolet became the national sponsor of the AASBD, pairing with local newspapers to promote races in towns across the country.

Madison held its first "unofficial" derby on July 26, 1934. Roundy Coughlin, a Wisconsin State Journal columnist, encouraged Madison's children to "get any kind of box as long as it is a box and get it on four wheels" to race down Regent Street near Randall School. The next year, the official Soap Box Derby arrived in Madison, complete with rules, regulations, and prizes. Cars had to be smaller than 36 inches high, 42 inches wide, and 50 inches long, with two running wheels in front and two in back. Children participated in three different classes based on age, and thirty-six boys raced down "Gorham Street Speedway" on August 18, 1935.

The Soap Box Derby continued to grow in popularity in Wisconsin, as it did across the country. The number of entrants and spectators steadily increased over the next several decades. By the time Phil Lenhart was old enough to race in the late 1940s, the Soap Box Derby was a full-fledged community event, with coverage often meriting front page news.

Phil entered his first race in 1949 at age 12, participating in Class B for 11 and 12 year-old boys (girls were not allowed to race until 1971). That year the race was held in the 100 block of Gorham Street, Madison's official "Derby Downs." The city park commission erected starting ramps, Shell Oil Company set up service pits, and the Madison Police Department and Boy Scouts provided crowd control.

After winning the event on his first try, Phil dismantled his first car to make it more aerodynamic. Using many of the same parts, he built the racer featured here, making it lower to the ground. Though some of his fellow racers used lightweight materials like papier-mâché and chicken wire, Phil constructed his racer from wood, steel, and items obtained from his sponsor, the Wisconsin Supply Company.

Phil built this car over several months, starting on it as soon as the 1950 rule book was available at Hult's Capital Garage. While AASBD rules allowed parents to offer advice and guidance, each racer had to build his own car. A contestant might even be required to recreate a particular component at the pre-race inspection if inspectors doubted he had done the work himself. The B.F. Goodrich Company supplied wheels to Derby participants at cost to keep the expense of constructing a car within AASBD limits.

Driving this rebuilt car in 1950, Phil came in second place to Madison Soap Box Derby champion Warren Slightam in the Class A finals for 13 to 15 year-olds. Phil continued to use this car for the last two years of his eligibility and followed the sport as a spectator for some years after. The Soap Box Derby's heyday was nearing its peak, however.

While participation and attendance continued to climb during the 1960s, the Derby was dealt a blow in 1972 when Chevrolet withdrew its sponsorship under its new general manager, John DeLorean. A year later, AASBD stripped the national champion of his title for installing an electromagnet in the nose of his car to propel it forwards at the start of the race. These two events tarnished the Derby's image, and participation suffered.

Though the All American Soap Box Derby still draws racers and spectators today, it competes with a seemingly ever-expanding number of recreational activities for young people. For boys like Phil Lenhart, though, the Soap Box Derby figured prominently in their youths. As 1947 Madison champion Dick Brilliot noted after winning the race, "I thought of it as one of the things that makes America such a wonderful country. Any boy, no matter who his dad is, or no matter if he hasn't got a father, can enter the race. His chances of winning are always as good as the next boy's."

[Sources: All American Soap Box Derby website online at; WHS staff telephone interview with Phil Lenhart, July 3, 2008; Wisconsin State Journal: July 20, 1934, p. 11; July 24, 1935, p. 5; April 10, 1949, p 27; April 17, 1949, p. 12; June 25, 1949; July 25, 1949 ("Farm and Home" supplement) p. 2; July 23, 1950, p. 1; May 18, 1952, p. 5.]


Posted on July 17, 2008

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