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Soap box derby racer Richard Lerwick, Madison, Wisconsin, 1948 WHI Image ID 53496
Soap box derby racer Richard Lerwick, Madison, Wisconsin, 1948 WHI 53496

The Thrill of the Hill: Madison's Soap Box Derby

In its golden age the soap box derby symbolized the best of America, while the boys who raced in it represented a hopeful and productive American future. From 1935 through 1957 boys from the Madison, Wisconsin, area participated in this uniquely American pastime. The Wisconsin State Journal sponsored the local race during this era, and each year the newspaper's photographer, Arthur Vinje, photographed the racers as they prepared and participated in it. This collection of more than 100 images captures the excitement of the derby as he recorded the event year after year. Besides the Vinje images, this gallery also includes small collections of photographs and ephemera collected by some of the participants.

Many of these images appear in a temporary exhibit, Zoom! Whiz! Wow! A High-Speed History of Madison's Soap Box Derby at the Wisconsin Historical Museum from July 26 through September 11, 2010, along with cars, trophies and other memorabilia.

Every Boy a Champion

These photos illustrate the procedures and rituals of the derby, as well as the enthusiasm Madison participants had for the race. The images show boys planning and building their cars, which they had to do themselves, meeting with their sponsors, having their cars inspected and weighed, waiting nervously in line to compete, zooming down the hill to the finish line, and finally receiving prizes and trophies.

Those lucky enough to win went on to the national race, the All-American Soap Box Derby, held at Derby Downs in Akron, Ohio, and competed against other city champions. Once each boy entered Akron, the city treated them and their parents as visiting celebrities. Several of the Madison winners recorded their memories of this auspicious occasion with photographs and ephemera such as tickets, postcards and programs.

A High-Speed History of the Soap Box Derby

The All-American Soap Box Derby came to life in Dayton, Ohio during 1933. The next year it moved to Akron, Ohio, where city champions from around the country came to compete for the national title. In 1936 with help from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Akron built a permanent soap box derby track called Derby Downs.

The Wisconsin State Journal ran its first race in 1935, but was not able to send the winner to Akron until the following year. For the next 21 years, with the exception of World War II (1942-1945), the Journal sent a boy to the national competition. In 1957 the State Highway Commission announced that the Journal could no longer use its favorite hill on East Washington Avenue near the Capitol, because the street had been designated as a state highway, so the Madison derby came to an abrupt end. Today it has been revived and is sponsored by the West Madison Kiwanis Club, but the current derby does not resonate with the American public like it did in its heyday.

Going to Akron: Van Steiner's Story

After competing in Madison's soap box derby for five years, 15-year-old Van Steiner of Argyle, Wisconsin, finally won in 1957. He and his parents had gone to see the national race, along with 50,000 other spectators, in 1953, not expecting that he would be back four years later to compete. His mother took lots of photographs and collected postcards, tickets and programs during both trips.

Van won his first heat but lost in the second. That evening he and his parents attended a huge banquet where organizers handed out prizes, including a four-year college scholarship for first place and a Chevrolet car for second place. After Van returned to Argyle, he participated in the town's annual parade by creating a float that showcased his five cars, along with trophies, awards and memorabilia.

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