- Lisa Powell Staff Writer
Imagine hundreds of young boys flying down a breakneck hill in wooden contraptions of their own design.
That scene was the very first Soap Box Derby – and it was held in Dayton in 1933.
The race, held on steep and brick-paved Burkhardt Avenue, was conceived by Myron E. “Scottie” Scott, a Dayton Daily News photographer.
Scott had run across a few boys coasting homemade vehicles on Hilltop Avenue in Oakwood and, inspired by their ingenuity, organized a race the following weekend.
Nineteen boys and their hand-crafted autos showed up along with a crowd of onlookers.
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Intent on creating a real race, Scott asked his editor for assistance and was given $200 to promote the very first derby.
Word spread about the competition that drew more than 325 entries, all boys except for one, a dark-haired girl named Alice Johnson.
A grand parade kicked off the event Aug. 19, 1933.
Young soap box drivers were towed in their homemade cars along Monument Avenue and Ludlow streets by their mechanics and then converged to fill the width of Main Street.
The wooden cars, in all shapes and sizes, paraded along supported by “wheels from baby carriages, wagons, bicycles, tricycles, wheel-barrows, automobiles and even kiddie cars,” according to a story describing the scene in the Dayton Daily News.
“The vehicles ranged in form and beauty from the proverbial sublime to the ridiculous,” the newspaper reported. “Junk yards, dumps, garrets and cellars must have been raided of all the available materials that could be pieced into a movable contraption. It was an Indianapolis Speedway classic in miniature form.”
A crowd estimated at more than 40,000 scaled buildings for the best views and lined the course that ran three-eighths of a mile.
A telephone line was installed from the starters’ line to the finish strip just for the race, and cameramen representing the three major newsreels of the country were on hand to film the inaugural event.
The races began in the afternoon with ages 11 to 16 racing for the grand prize, the Dayton Daily News cup, and the winner of the younger group competing for a “handsome red bicycle.”
Racers hunched over self-designed steering mechanisms urging the cars to hurtle faster down “Burkhardt’s famous coasting hill.”
The heats ran for four hours as the crowd waved their hats and shouted encouragement to the racers.
Moments after “little David Wyse” captured the prize for the younger competitors, “a flashing yellow comet on wheels, its gas-pipe steering handles clutched in the vice-like grip of a 16-year-old boy, whizzed across the finish line.”
Randall Custer, an Oakwood High School student, became the “champion of champions” of the first soap box race.
The following year Chevrolet agreed to sponsor Scott’s competition, and the first official All-American Soap Box Derby was held in Dayton. Racers from across the nation competed for the grand prize, a four-year college scholarship.
The crowd swelled to more than 65,000, and the event drew celebrities of the day including Wild Bill Cummings, the 1934 Indianapolis 500 winner, and famous aviator “Jimmie” Mattern.
In 1935, the race moved to Akron due to its central location and hilly terrain, according to the All-American Soap Box Derby organization.