Movie Mom

Movie Mom

Soap Box Derby — Life Imitates Art

posted by Nell Minow

Derby-Soap-Box.jpgIt bills itself as “The Greatest Amateur Racing Event in the World!” But the Soap Box Derby, once a popular event with racers, spectators, and sponsors, has, well, gone downhill. It began during the Depression and now has races across the country. Children from 8-17 build their cars, which operate through gravity only, no engines. They compete locally and the champions come to Akron, Ohio to compete for prizes and scholarships.
The Wall Street Journal reports that


kids today are more likely to play video games than to tinker in the garage with power tools. And audiences have other distractions. The annual race, held in July, once drew crowds of more than 50,000; last year it attracted only 15,000 people paying $5 at the gate.

The erosion of corporate support, however, has been crippling. In the heyday of the derby, in the 1960s, Chevrolet sponsored and promoted the race. Over the years, big corporate backers brought celebrities, including Ronald Reagan, Rock Hudson, Evel Knievel, and O.J. Simpson. The late actor Jimmy Stewart attended six times.

With the last corporate sponsor pulling out, the Derby was in trouble. It was sued by its bank. There was a temporary reprieve when its home town of Akron guaranteed the debt. And then, just like in a movie, a hero arrived. And just like in a movie, it was not the hero you’d expect. It was Corbin Bernsen, the actor best known for playing sleazy litigator Arnie Becker on “L.A. Law.” Bernsen wanted to help, and decided to make a movie about the Soap Box Derby, with a part for himself as a one-time champ who steps into to help a boy whose father was killed in Afghanistan. In the movie, called “25 Hill” and scheduled for release next year, the boy finds a sponsor. In real life, GEICO, the sponsor signed up by Bernsen for the movie has signed on to sponsor the race as well. Soap_Box_Derby_Racer.jpg

  • Wendy

    I think this is a really wonderful story. I appreciate these under-the-radar stories of celebrities “using their power for good.”

  • Nell Minow

    Thank you, Wendy! I loved this story, too.

  • Debra Edwards

    Hello – I am the Fund Raising Coordinator for the Kansas City Soap Box Derby Association and I wanted to send a message to Ms. Minow. Her April 30, 2010 article on the Soap Box Derby was a wonderful commentary on a sport that my family has been involved with for over 7 years when our son climbed into his first car. We have been incredibly blessed to be a keeper of this part of Americana and I wanted to thank her for her kind words. I also wanted her to know that in communities all over the US this sport is alive with dedicated volunteers who work incredibly hard at keeping it growing for future generations. Our track in Kansas City was built in 1977 and remains one of the fastest in the US but 30 years of wear had taken its toll. Through a five year fundraising campaign our organization began resurfacing our track last week and we will be rededicating our “new” track for our local race on June 12, 2010. It is a very exciting time in our organization and Soap Box Derby and we thank her for her support.
    Debra Edwards
    Kansas City Soap Box Derby Association
    Fund Raising Coordinator
    (and mom of driver “Crazy Squirrel” Jerry Edwards)

  • Jim Cassidy

    I was just wondering if you had any source information regarding the amazing black and white photograph that accompanies this posting. Thanks.

  • Nell Minow

    I love that photo, too, Jim! It’s from

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