January 2012 Archives

"Gentlemen...Start Your Engines!!"

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When I was about 10 years old, I remember my next door neighbor and his father building a pretty classy cart for the annual soapbox derby.  Most carts were nothing more than a rectangular apple basket tied to four wheels, while others looked like they were put together by college engineering students!  I don't know why I never attempted to put one together.  Nor do I know why I never went to any of the races.   Maybe that's why I was curious to research the soapbox derby in Greenwich.  While looking through the Gotch Photo Collection, I saw quite a few negatives from early soapbox races.  I remember reading about last year's derby, and thought I would look back in the newspaper files to see what I could find.   I was very surprised!



      Soapbox Derby Car.        SOURCE:    Flickr Commons


The first article on the Greenwich Soapbox Derby appears to have been written in 1964.   There were articles from 1964 to 1968, then 1970, 1973, 1984, and 1985.  There appears to have been a gap until 2008.  An article in the September 14, 2008 Greenwich Time confirmed that there hadn't been a race in 23 years.   Then there were articles again in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011.  The main reason for the gaps seems to be a lack of sponsorship.  I've tried to include as much information as I could.

It seems only logical that Greenwich would have such an event since there are so many classic car dealerships (e.g. Miller Motor Cars, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, etc.), which would be perfect sponsors.  Not only that, but Greenwich Avenue provides the perfect venue for a closed track, as well as great viewing.  Seymour Chevrolet was a regular sponsor, as was Miller Motor Cars. 

As mentioned before, the first soapbox derby was held in Greenwich in July 1964.  Seventy boys participated for a $500 prize and a trip to Akron, Ohio, for the National Derby.  Greenwich Avenue was chosen for the race due to its straightness and its slope.  Not only that, but it provided excellent viewing.  The Avenue was closed off to regular traffic, as well as several side streets.  An amplification system was set up to connect the start and finish lines.  Hay bales lined both sides of the street for safety reasons.  Seymour Chevrolet provided shirts and helmets, and Greenwich Gas provided refreshments for the contestants.  The cars were secured in the First Presbyterian Church at the top of the Avenue, until they were moved to Amogerone Crossway for the trial heats, which started at 7:30 am.  The final race started at 12:30 pm. Five thousand spectators lined Greenwich Avenue.  There was an air of excitement all along the route.  Stores opened their doors to sell hamburgers and hot dogs. 

Gary Balin from Banksville beat Brian Curley to advance to the Akron race.  His car was provided by the Greenwich Exchange Club and Seymour Chevrolet.  He was sponsored by the Banksville Independent Fire Company.  In August he would travel to Akron.  He was given $200 for expenses.  Although he didn't win, it was a great experience.

In July 1965, 12-year-old Glen Greiner from Stamford beat Billy Richardson in his Banksville Fire Department entry to win a trophy and a $500 savings bond.  First Selectman Lowell Weicker presented the trophy.  Glen's brother, Steve, won the 1960 South Bend, OH, derby.

The following year (1966), there was no derby.  Instead a Soapbox Derby Clinic was held at a Naval Reserve Center on Magee Avenue in Stamford.  Derby winner Glen Greiner was on hand to offer advice on how to build a car.  It was sponsored by the Stamford Junior Chamber of Commerce.

The Stamford Jaycees and Redman Chevrolet sponsored the derby in 1967.  Contestants from Stamford, Greenwich, Darien, New Canaan and Norwalk were invited to the derby held in Stamford.  In 1968, twenty-eight contestants participated in the derby at Rippowam High School.  The Sheraton-New Englander hotel sponsored the derby.  Robert Pruett, a Greenwich middle-schooler won a $500 savings bond, a trophy and a a trip to Akron.  Stamford Mayor Bruno Giordano presented the trophy.  In 1970, nineteen contestants competed in the derby in Stamford.  Greenwich Time carrier Paul Wahrenburg from Old Greenwich won the race.  He spent 5 months building and perfecting his entry. 

I couldn't find any information on soapbox derbys from about 1970 to 1984.  In 1984,  the derby was resurrected in Greenwich.  The Greenwich Lions Club held an All-American Soapbox Derby on Greenwich Avenue. Thirty-five businesses in Greenwich sponsored the contestants.  The Department of Social Services got involved with providing aid to the less fortunate.   As a sign of the times, 31-33 boys and girls entered the race on Greenwich Avenue.  Fifty-six heats were held in 2 hours.  Each contestant had a thirty-second race down the 694-yard course.  The race had been divided into two divisions - the junior and senior.  Kristen Thal from Old Greenwich won the junior, while Jay Ragusa from Stamford won the senior division.  the proceeds from the race were used to build a handicap playground in Bruce Park. 

The 1985 derby was sponsored by the Greenwich Lions.  Funds raised from this event would go to the Yale Eye Institute and the Connecticut Eye Research.  In addition, a raffle was held with these prizes: motorbike, sailboat, water skis and skateboard.  It cost $12,000 to put on the event.  Revenue from entrance fees and the raffle helped defray the costs.

There was a hiatus of about 23 years until 2008 when the derby was restarted.  Once again Miller Motor Cars sponsored the classic race.  It was used to kickoff the annual United Way September Fest.  The same was true in 2010 when Abilis was added as a non-profit group to get funding.  Abilis also competed in two-man cars.

Whether or not the soapbox derby continues to be held in the future remains to be seen.  Sponsorship is the main problem.  Contestants and families seem to like the contest because it teaches children about competition and sportsmanship.  They also like it because it provides an opportunity for children and parents to interact directly.  It also serves as an outreach event by connecting business with residents.  Some groups like Social Services have tried to even the field by providing scholarships to low income families.  It's estimated that 1-million people nationwide participate in soapbox racing.  This is a great pastime for families to pursue.  

 SOURCE:   Greenwich Time (Hearst Corp.)





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