Use the smaller-sized text Use the larger-sized text Use the very large text

Curators' Favorites

1957 Soap Box Derby Racer

"Soap box" coaster car operated by
Van Steiner in the All-American Soap Box
Derby in 1957.

(Museum object # 2009.56.1)

This "soap box" coaster car was built and raced by 15-year-old Van Steiner of Argyle, Wisconsin, in the spring and summer of 1957. It was the fifth soap box car he constructed, and it raced him all the way to the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio. Van built his first car at age nine, and he competed in local derbies before participating in the Madison championship from 1953 through 1957. Phillipson's Garage of Argyle, the business at which his father worked, sponsored Van for his five Madison races. In 1957, he won the Madison race and qualified for the national championship. The Wisconsin State Journal sponsored him in the national derby. Made of oak, pine, and fiberglass, his winning 1957 car features a floating rear axle that kept the weight evenly distributed on all four tires and provided for better performance on uneven surfaces.

Founded in the midst of the Depression in 1933, the All-American Soap Box Derby (AASBD) had grown from a more or less improvised race organized by the local newspaper in Dayton, Ohio, to a huge spectacle with its own infrastructure, supported chiefly by car manufacturer Chevrolet, newspapers across the nation, and the tire companies in Akron. Akron, coined "the world's tire capital," was home to the tire companies Goodyear, General, Firestone, and B.F. Goodrich. The city had built Derby Downs, the race track for the AASBD, as a New Deal Works Progress Administration project in 1936. To this day, kids compete on Derby Downs every summer for the title of the All-American Soap Box Derby World Champion.

By the late 1930s, the All-American Soap Box Derby drew tens of thousands of spectators every year. It gave boys between the ages of nine and fifteen years (girls were banned from racing from 1935 until 1970) a chance to stand in the national spotlight. To compete, boys had to enter an authorized soap box derby near their homes and register with a sponsoring Chevrolet dealer in the area. The winners of the annual city derbies were usually sponsored by their city's newspapers and were sent to the national championship. The cars had to be completely boy-built, but family and friends were allowed to give advice.

The winners of the national derby were awarded college scholarships. While this achievement came true for only a small minority of participants, every soap box racer learned from his experience. By building their own cars, boys were taught both mechanical skills and values such as perseverance. They were also kept busy in a time when there was great concern about juvenile delinquency. In a letter to a journalist of the Wisconsin State Journal, Van's mother Irene expressed her appreciation of the derby: "It is … a clean sport and keeps our boys occupied in their idle hours so they can't get into mischief as so many of our youngsters do. It educates them mechanically, physically & mentally. To start a job and see it through to the finish." Chevrolet advertised the derby as "a project that helps keep the nation's boys on the right track."

Having won in Madison, Van Steiner arrived in Akron with his family on Thursday, August 15, 1957. The races were preceded by three days of activities and entertainment for the boys and their families. At "Derbytown," a YMCA camp, the participants stayed in cabins and spent their free time swimming, boating, playing tennis or baseball, or riding. A shuttle transported them to the top of the race tracks, where the champs worked on their racers, checked them in to make sure they complied with the weight and construction regulations, and ran trial heats. In the evenings, the boys were entertained by some of their favorite movie and television stars – cowboy couple Dale Evans and Roy Rogers, singer Dinah Shore, and actors Robert Montgomery, Andy Devine, and Jimmy Stewart, who was a devoted fan and regular visitor of the derby.

The organizers of the soap box derby catered to the boys' parents, too. They were accommodated at the Sheraton hotel and were greeted upon arrival by representatives of Chevrolet and the Chamber of Commerce in Akron. O'Neil's Department Store arranged a luncheon with a fashion show for the champs' mothers, and Shore and Montgomery performed in a "Mom and Pop night."

While the whole family enjoyed the spectacle of the pre-race events, things were not going perfectly for Van. The axle and the steering device of his racer had been bent in shipping and had to be repaired by the mechanics in the racer stalls. While he prepared himself for the heat, his parents were seated close to the finish line. The derby was opened with a bomb salute and the discharge of an American flag bomb. Then, a long parade of school bands, drill teams, majorettes, a Canadian royal mounted band, girl and boy scouts, marched down the tracks. Finally, the 159 champs appeared. They had all drawn their first race lane from a big bowl of tennis balls. Van started as one of 21 champions in the 27-second bracket; the other 138 boys were in the 28-second class. In the first heat, he started in the second lane, and won. For the second race, however, he drew the third lane, which was generally regarded as the bad lane. He lost this race, clocking 28:33 seconds on the 975.4-foot track. The All-American champion, Terry Townsend of Anderson, Indiana, ran the heat in 27:18 seconds. But even if he did not win, the excitement of being a part of the Akron race outweighed Van's disappointment.

Coming back home to Argyle, Van was welcomed as a champion. His mother described their experience at the national championship in the Argyle Atlas, the town's newspaper. He was invited to the local school to give a presentation on his car. In the town's homecoming parade in October, Van rode on a float titled "Stairway to a Champion" that featured all the soap box cars he built through the years, from "Number Nine," his first car that was built from an apple box, to the elaborately constructed racer that took him to Akron. In the six years of his racing career, he had improved his cars for every race, making use of his growing experience, the physics he learned at school, and his father's and grandfather's technological knowledge.

In 2009, reflecting on the benefits of soap box racing for kids, Van Steiner echoes his mother's thoughts when he says, "It is a lot of work. It bonds you with your parents. And it keeps you off the street."

More of Van Steiner's soap box derby artifacts and ephemera are housed in the Museum and Archives collections of the Wisconsin Historical Society. The museum collection also includes another soap box car that was raced in Madison in the 1950s.

[Sources: All-American Soap Box Derby, Souvenir Program, 1953; All-American Soap Box Derby, Rule Book, 1954; Argyle Atlas, August 22, 1957; Payne, Melanie. Champions, Cheaters, and Childhood Dreams. Memories of the Soap Box Derby (Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 2003); Interview with Van Steiner by WHS staff, July 22, 2009; Letter from Irene Steiner to Wallace Wicoff of the Wisconsin State Journal, probably early August, 1957; Wisconsin State Journal, July 29, 1957.]


Posted on August 31, 2009

This article appears in the following categories:

  • Sports & Recreation
  • Kids
select text size Use the smaller-sized textUse the larger-sized textUse the very large text