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Backtrack: Indianapolis Soap Box Derby

Still Rolling: Forget the Indy 500—come May, the Indianapolis Soap Box Derby is the most fun kids can have on four wheels.

For 85 years, Indianapolis kids have careened downhill in search of speed and glory, propelled by the pull of gravity alone. For these boys and girls, the most important car race of the year isn’t the Indianapolis 500; it’s the Soap Box Derby.

The boy in this 1956 photo might have learned a lot about the science of speed and the camaraderie of teamwork at the race he ran a car in, but he didn’t take the trophy. The day’s win went to 12-year-old Pierre Dillman, who, according to a front-page article in the July 8 Indianapolis Star, bested a field of 251 competitors in front of a crowd of 10,000.

The track Dillman won on, the Wilbur Shaw Soap Box Derby Hill at 30th Street and Cold Spring Road, was only three years old that summer. At 1,000 feet, it’s still the longest track in the country, according to the Indianapolis Soap Box Derby Association.

Even in those early years, it was expensive to buy, build, and maintain a car. Today, a stock kit alone starts at around $500, and that’s without wheels. Extras like tools and weights can ring up to several hundred more dollars faster than a hand-built chassis whips around the wooden rails. So just like the IndyCar teams do now, most kids had to find businesses to sponsor their derby racers (probably the reason “Zimmer Paper Products” appears on the side of this car).

Even in those early years, it was expensive to buy, build, and maintain a car. Today, a stock kit alone starts at around $500, and that’s without wheels.

Three racers barrel down the trackCourtesy Indiana Historical Society

The high price tag prevented underprivileged kids from participating in the activity until around 2000, when the Inner City Youth Racing League came along to maintain cars for children who couldn’t otherwise afford to race. In 2008, 13-year old Sara Mack became the first African-American female to take the championship in Indianapolis as a member of the ICYRL and go on to compete at the national Soap Box Derby competition in Akron, Ohio.

Mack didn’t win it all at nationals that year, but in 2017, Indianapolis and the Inner City Youth Racing League scored when the city’s own Marlon Wells became the first black Soap Box Derby World Champion.

The Soap Box Derby remains popular here, drawing crowds in the hundreds to watch several heats for racers from ages 7 to 21. We’ve hosted an annual derby longer than anyone except Dayton, Ohio, where the race originated in 1933. Ladies and gentlemen, start your imaginary engines.

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