The surprising complexity of soapbox derby racing | Column

By Guest Writer
Jan 7, 2022 | Column, soap box derby | Posted in Columns | From the May 2012 issue | Never miss an article

By Will Nonnamaker

When I was a kid, all I seemed to care about was racing cars. I loved going to the track with my dad. I enjoyed watching the cars zip around Summit Point’s Carousel, dive into Mid-Ohio’s Keyhole, or run up through Turn 5 at Road Atlanta.

At home, I would hoon around the neighborhood—first on a Big Wheel tricycle and later on my banana-seat bicycle. I think that by the time I was 12, I’d taken about five Big Wheels out of commission with excursions down steep driveways, e-brake turns and other shenanigans. In fact, I had such a passion for racing that I organized my own Big Wheel races, taking two wins out of three events.

My young son, Ian, shares my automotive obsession, but with a twist. What does he want to be when he grows up? A racing mechanic. 

Now, I can use tools; I just don’t really care to work on cars. It doesn’t give me any joy to fix a mechanical problem. My son, though, thinks it’s the greatest thing in the world. He thinks Legos are awesome, requests Craftsman tools for his birthday and Christmas, and would rather watch our car get serviced than zip around the track. In fact, in his words, watching cars race is absolutely “boring.”

A few years ago, I came up with the great idea of building a soapbox derby car with my son. It all made sense on paper, especially since the All American Soap Box Derby is held in Akron, Ohio, just 30 minutes north of us. 

My plan was simple: Buy a Stock-class car kit and build an entry with Ian. I remember telling myself, “This thing should be easy to build since it doesn’t have a motor.” Those words seem so funny now.

I gave the kit to Ian for Christmas last year, and we went to work right away. During the rest of the winter and into the spring, we worked together in our dimly lit basement. I figured the lack of lighting added to the DIY mood.

If we’d followed the kit instructions and just put all the pieces together, the actual building process wouldn’t have taken more than a week. However, every time I hopped online to do some research, I learned a new trick that would make our racer faster. There were tips about properly sanding the wooden floor and then waxing it until it shined. There was advice for polishing the axles to a mirrorlike finish. 

The experts even recommended sending out the axles so they could be properly measured and marked for setup points. And since the rules allow the soapbox to weigh up to 200 pounds with driver, there were special weights to install, and their placement depended on the track itself. I’m being totally serious about all of this.

[Will Nonnamaker's 10 easily overlooked endurance racing essentials]

The good news is that, despite all this painstaking effort that dragged out a seemingly simple process into one that took months, Ian actually enjoyed the whole process. He felt like he was really becoming a mechanic, and this made it fun for me. I wanted Ian to learn about the building process, not just hand the tools to me. 

I also know that we are never going to be the best at this. There are many dads who are much more dedicated and fanatical about soapbox derby than I am. They’re also much better engineers. 

As Ian and I went along, the process continued to be fantastic. When we were done, Ian could actually disassemble the car and rebuild it himself. To be honest, he even corrected me a couple of times on the build instructions when I got lost. 

Before we showed up at any events, we invested in some basic alignment tools. One tool ensures the wheelbase is equal from side to side. Another uses triangulation to find the center point on each axle. Then, like a real race car pit crew, we used string to make sure that the suspension was perfectly plumb. 

When soapbox season arrived in June, we had a completely built and aligned car that was ready for its first race. I wanted Ian to have a little seat time, so I took him over to our office/race shop. Part of the driveway has a bit of a grade to it, which I felt would be perfect for simulating the Derby’s downhill conditions. 

Let me make a long story short. Thanks to my mechanical ineptitude and the steeper-than-expected gradient, a loose locking nut sent Ian and our soapbox derby racer on a very exciting adventure. A cable let go on Ian’s fourth run, rendering the brakes useless. The car went careening out of control, hit a curb, launched into the air, and landed on some grass. My wife, Holley, caught the whole thing on video, but I fear posting it on YouTube because child services might come after me.

After collecting the car—and our son—we assessed the damage: The racer suffered a shattered plastic shell and a torn-up floorboard. Six months of work had gone down the drain. This was all good news for Ian, though: Now he could start the building process all over again. Unlike me, he wasn’t depressed by the situation. 

We went back to work and rebuilt the car. We even addressed a few flaws in the original build. Plus, a good friend offered to tweak our setup even more. His son and daughter race in soapbox derby, and he has those fancy tools used to measure toe and camber. When he asked me if I wanted an indoor or outdoor setup, I was reminded that any kind of racing can be taken to the nth degree, even if it doesn’t involve an engine. (And if you’re wondering, I flipped a coin and chose the outdoor setup.)

Our first event will now take place this winter at an indoor event—so much for having the perfect setup. We aren’t really intending or expecting to win, but hopefully Ian can learn a little bit from each outing so he, too, can get closer to achieving his dream of being a race mechanic. 

Of course, while building the soapbox derby car I also got to indulge one of my motorsports passions—paint schemes. Yes, Ian’s car now carries the same lightning bolt and Sahlen’s livery found on our Mazda race cars. 

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View comments on the GRM forums
Robbie (Forum Supporter)
Robbie (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
6/2/21 10:39 a.m.

More pics of the car please! And also, how old was Ian during this process?

lnlogauge HalfDork
6/2/21 12:57 p.m.

I went to nationals twice, with a best finish of 7th nationally. The complexity when you hit national level is unreal. like all forms of racing, people spend thousands of dollars to shave off thousands of a second. It helps, as long as positioning and driving are spot on too. the masters cars are the ones that got seriously out of hand. the big money racers had wind tunnel tesing done on their cars. 






j_tso GRM+ Memberand Reader
6/2/21 3:00 p.m.

On the opposite side of competition there's the Red Bull Soapbox Race, and the time Aston Martin made a serious joke:


Appleseed MegaDork
6/2/21 4:06 p.m.

Aren't these supposed to built and raced by kids? Or is it more of "I hired Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites to build this missile. My kids is simply ballast" type deals? 

NOT A TA SuperDork
6/2/21 8:13 p.m.

I raced BMX nationals at the Akron park where the derby track is/was, anyone know if there's still a BMX track there?. Remember the magnet cheater car of the early 70's?

lnlogauge HalfDork
6/2/21 8:24 p.m.

In reply to Appleseed :

Driving is about 90% of the formula for winning. Reading the road, following the line, and staying smooth. This isn't the pinewood derby, the kits aren't really made for kids to assemble. 

Tom1200 SuperDork
6/2/21 9:05 p.m.

I seem to recall they had F1 teams build Soapbox Derby cars for charity.......they money they spent was eye watering.

adam525i GRM+ Memberand Dork
6/2/21 9:19 p.m.

In reply to Tom1200 :

I have memories of those running down the hill at the Goodwood Festival of speed but I can't find video proof now. It looks like they stopped after too many crashes in 2013 but brought them back for the last edition.

Here's a blurry video of 2007 though, the second race is pretty good but I bet the one guy was pretty sore the next day.

Edit - doesn't look like the video embed if working right now so here is a link -

AaronT Reader
6/3/21 8:25 a.m.

I have to say, my first reaction to the title was, "you must be new to the subject of speed".

I've been around moderately high levels of racing in running and bicycles to very low levels of motorsports (sim, karts, ax). Speed always comes with a price tag attached.

pirate HalfDork
6/3/21 12:13 p.m.
AaronT said:

I have to say, my first reaction to the title was, "you must be new to the subject of speed".

I've been around moderately high levels of racing in running and bicycles to very low levels of motorsports (sim, karts, ax). Speed always comes with a price tag attached.

As the old saying goes" Speed costs money, how fast do you want to go"

SVreX (Forum Supporter)
SVreX (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
6/3/21 12:26 p.m.

I have ALWAYS wanted to do this! ... Ever since I was a kid. 

I'm not a kid any more...

My kids are not kids any more...

Maybe with my grandkids...


slefain PowerDork
1/7/22 11:44 a.m.

We raced for one season. I showed up with our car strapped down to my open utility trailer. The pro families had fully enclosed trailers with setups that rival stuff I've seen at Road Atlanta. We had fun, kiddo had fun, but there was no way we were taking home a trophy. The top families were dynastic, multiple generations of wins. The winning cars easily outpaced everyone else. Not knocking them, it just seemed like breaking in to be competitive was going to be a steep uphill push.

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