For the first time since the nation celebrated its Bicentennial, an American institution is returning to Schenectady.
The Capital District All-American Soap Box Derby is back in the Electric City for the first time since 1976. The youth car race ran in Albany from 2006 until last year.
Director Ginger Miller said the race moved back to Schenectady because Madison Avenue in Albany was no longer made available by that city, and State Street there, the new location, was not suitable.
She said she is thrilled with the new Schenectady course — which will run down Franklin Street by Nott Terrace down to Jay Street — and other amenities now offered, such as the availability of the Schenectady Armory as a staging/holding area for cars.
“They are helping us so much,” Miller said of the city, which agreed to host the Soap Box Derby for the next five years.
Miller’s son, Joe Miller, is the assistant director for the race. He has been working with competitors ages 7 to 20 to make sure the cars are up to regulation.
“The city and everyone involved has given us everything we need,” he said. “I’m so impressed with how much help we’ve received from the city, the businesses around here and all the people.”
Miller was a participant in the 1976 derby, in which he finished second — and won the award for the best-decorated car.
“We used to run them down Fehr Street here in Schenectady, and I don’t know what happened after that,” he said. “There was just nobody able to direct it until my mother came out and started it back up [more than] eight years ago.”
The cars will be brought to Franklin Street, and races will begin at 9 a.m. Saturday. Aound 40 participants will compete in the Stock, Super Stock, Masters, and Super Kids races down the 600-foot course.
Stock is for youths 7 to 14, and the cars must not exceed 200 pounds, including the driver. Super Stock is for kids ages 9 to 19, and must not exceed 240 pounds. The Masters cars are driven by competitors ages 10 to 20, and the vehicle must not exceed 255 pounds. The Super Kids races are two-seater cars for youths with disabilities, driven by experienced drivers. Stock and Super Stock cars are driven with the rider sitting up whereas in Masters division cars, the rider is lying down.
The cars are bought in a kit from the All-American Soap Box Derby race program and assembled and customized by racers to meet regulations. They are raced down a hill two football fields long, two or three at a time, using gravity as the only source of acceleration. The drivers can add weights to get as close to the maximum weight allowed, and decorate the car as they wish.
Schenectady Armory owner Ray Legere is pleased to host the derby cars for a staging area prior to the race.
“Our goal here is to have a multipurpose event center to serve the community, so having the Soap Box Derby here is a great experience,” Legere said. “Everyone is working together to make the event a success, and we’re more than happy to have them here.”
The Soap Box Derby originated in 1933, when newsman Myron Scott, a photographer in Dayton, Ohio, took photos for an assignment of neighborhood kids racing their own homemade cars down a street. That inspired him to find a corporate sponsor for the derby, and the next year Chevrolet sponsored the first All-American Soap Box Derby in Dayton. In 1936, Derby Downs was founded in Akron, Ohio, as the Soap Box Derby Capital of the World.
Schenectady’s first ever Soap Box Derby was held in 1937, when 175 local boys crafted and raced their own cars in competition down Fehr Street. Through 1976 and again when the race resumed in the area in 2006, the regional winners of each division qualified for the All-American Soap Box Derby at Derby Downs race track.
The Soap Box Derby carved a niche into the American culture. An advertisement in a 1940 edition of The Schenectady Gazette stated that the winner of the national competition would win a four-year scholarship to any college of their choice. In the 1970s the national race was a staple on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”
Locally, 2010 masters champion Michael Morawski of Guilderland qualified for the national event and went on to become the All-American champion of the race in Ohio.
JV Napala, a fifth-grade student at Thomas O’Brien Academy of Science and Technology in Albany, was at the staging area Monday night making some final adjustments to his car.
“I’m really excited since this is my first time,” the 11-year-old Napala said. “I’m not sure what division I’ll race in, but it will be fun.”
Also from Thomas O’Brien was teacher Art Flynn, who organized a club for students to build a car and race for the past six years.
“We have a dedicated group of kids who meet after school to design and build the car,” Flynn said. “We put in a lot of work and we’re just trying to have a fun, competitive race this weekend.”