One second, Gus Scalise was rolling down Schenectady’s Fehr Avenue at 20 mph.
The next second, Scalise and his miniature car changed directions. It wasn’t Gus’s idea.
Another homemade hot rod competing in Schenectady’s annual Soap Box Derby forced the maneuver. It rammed Gus’s back end, spinning him around. His number “143” crossed the finish line in unusual fashion, as 5,000 spectators cheered.
The Schenectady Gazette described the quick move in detail: “Smashed broadside by James O’Malley, who lost control of his car, Gus piloted his racer backward down the last 400 feet of the raceway to become Schenectady’s first derby driver to win in reverse.”
“I was scared,” said Scalise, who had planned a more conventional route down the fearsome Fehr hill. “I thought I was going to crash.”
The 1948 race was the 12-year-old Scalise’s first taste of speed inside a plywood and sheet metal shell. He won his first heat in 35.9 seconds.
“It gave you something to do in the summertime other than loaf,” he said about the competition. “We had to build our own cars; I don’t think any of us did. I really don’t think anyone built their own car. They’d be lying if they said they did.”
Scalise’s guardian mechanic was Al Chant, who lived across the street from the Scalise family on Michigan Avenue. Chant worked at the General Electric Co.’s Research and Development Center, and while he could not equip Gus’s car with an atomic power train, he knew a little bit about velocity and aerodynamics.
Chant was on Scalise’s design team in 1948 and 1949. “The third year, I was on my own,” Scalise said. By 1950, Gus knew how to work the wheels when his car was up on blocks.
“You’d spin the wheels with a dish towel,” he said. “If you used your hands, you’d kill your hands. It grooved the axle to the wheel.”
Painting was a little easier. Scalise remembers brown paint on his 1948 model and black on his 1949 entry. “Everybody had different colors,” he said. “Some guys went all out for it.”
In 1948, Scalise had enough speed in the “B” division to beat James Niland in 31.4 seconds, reaching 19.2 miles per hour. The third heat was also fast — for Richard DiCamillo. The young racer beat Scalise to the finish line, posting 31.62 for time and 19.4 for speed.
Scalise, now 72 and a retired Sofco manager who lives in Rotterdam, went home with a slightly banged-up car and a smile: He won the derby’s sportsmanship trophy.