The suspicions were borne out—rather spectacularly—at the 1973 running. James Gronen, a 14-year-old from Boulder, Colo., was stripped of his title because his soupedup soapbox had a hidden battery and electromagnet that gave it a swift pull forward when the metal starting flap dropped. A Boulder court charged Gronen's uncle, the car's designer, with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. (A judge urged him to contribute the $2,000 fine to the Boys Clubs.) "It was like learning the Ivory Snow girl made blue movies," a district attorney later remarked. "It's like seeing apple pie, motherhood and the flag grinding to a halt." Faith had been broken in an American institution, and the Derby has never fully recovered.
Just as damaging had been Chevrolet's decision, in 1972, to bail. Since then, Derby funding has been patched together from small sponsors. "For a while," says Mann, "I thought the event would fade away." Last year organizers formed an alliance with NASCAR, which brought in Home Depot as a backer. Still, the event depends mostly on the kindness of volunteers, who work for the love of soapbox racing and to have a little fun.
To draw bigger crowds, a vintage-car show was added this year. To bring in more kids, the age bracket was expanded. (It had been nine to 16.) The event now has three designs of cars, from simple to complex, and three races each for regional winners and for rally drivers, who engage in a months-long points competition. Youths are no longer penalized if their parents do most of the work, as long as the kids chip in. "I helped with some of the screws," offered eight-year-old Aimee Johnson of Ashland, Kent., on Saturday.
"And she did all the waxing!" added her dad, Earl.
Like every other regional soapboxer, Johnson qualified for the All-American by winning a local race. "We're all champs," said Newport, R.I., super-stock champion Jacob Wigton, 11. "Some champs are afraid racers in the other lanes are better than them because they're champs, but they're forgetting about themselves being champs."
On Saturday the competitors queued up, three abreast, to glide quietly down Derby Downs in single-elimination heats that lasted only about 29 seconds each. There was no strategy and little driving skill involved. "There's nothing youngsters can do to get faster," says Mann. "It's just, 'Oh, boy, here we go.' That's discouraging to kids today."
The kids in Saturday's finals, however, seemed to have plenty of fun. "I think the race is coming back," said 1953 champ Freddy Mohler as he watched. "This is my 46th Derby, and every year I see more kids, more cars, more fans." A small, frail retired Muncie janitor, Mohler surveyed the half-empty stands and declared, "I think the Derby will be as big as when I was in it, maybe even bigger. Someday, it'll be the Number 1 sport in America."
He smiled like a tyke in a toy shop. "I may not be here to see it," he said, "but it'll get there."