But a lot has happened. Some of it you already know. Some of the Midwest has gone to the Sun Belt and some to Japan. Chevrolet walked away from the All-American in 1972, and right after that, during the former vice-president's Watergate troubles, the All-American champion was caught cheating, and his father said, Hey, everybody does it. A lot of the local tire factories have closed, and now Akron doesn't want to be called the Rubber City anymore. Instead the chamber of commerce proclaims: "Golf fans recognize Akron as the Golf Capital of the World." I wasn't aware of that until last August, but then, Akron is like the rest of America. It isn't a place where things are made anymore. Only 28% of the ex-Rubber City is in manufacturing now. Imagine that. Once I was an outcast, a writer, a service-economy unto myself in a can-do world. America has caught up with me at last.
At the 1987 All-American the crowd topped out at maybe 10,000, and a large number of those spectators actually came to play in the marching bands. The glamorous stars from the Hollywood galaxy were Connie Needham, Dick Sargent, Billy Hufsey and Kevin Wixted, and everywhere they went they were loudly identified as "celebrities" so everyone would be sure to know. Moreover, the whole enterprise, the All-American Soap Box Derby, had to shut itself down for six weeks in the spring for that saddest of modern all-American reasons: insurance. That was just when the regionals were being held in places like Bellevue, Neb., Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Kansas City, Mo. On top of that, not all the All-American boys are boys now. A lot of the boys are girls. The All-American isn't exclusively in Boydom any longer.
Mercifully, though, when I left Akron, I didn't yet think the All-American was located in the land of Nowadays, so maybe we still have a chance.
Culturally vulgar institutions that endure are invariably blessed by serendipity. Anyone who sat around with his thinking cap on and tried to invent the Miss America Pageant or trick-or-treating or hog-calling contests or the All-American Soap Box Derby couldn't. But...one day in 1933, Myron Scott, a staff photographer for the
Dayton Daily News
with the soul of a p.r. man (this isn't just me trying to be poetic; that's what he eventually became), saw a bunch of real American boys monkeying around with homemade cars, and, bingo, Scott had an inspiration. That year he staged an informal race for 19 kids, including 12-year-old Bob Gravett, who painted a 7 on his car because, he says, it was the easiest number to draw. Gravett's racer, Old Number 7, became the All-American's symbol.
Soon enough Scott's paper was sponsoring the Soap Box Derby, with 34 entries for the national inaugural in 1934—including representatives from Akron, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis and Anderson, Ind., the five stalwart Midwestern cities that would go on to have a representative in all 50 editions of the All-American. That first official race was won by Bob Turner of Muncie, Ind., who put his buggy together with wood from a saloon bar and buck-fifty wheels. Turner's original didn't really get rolling, though, until he stripped the rubber tires off his wheels because "the Lord made me do it." Barely past the finish line, the wheels fell off Turner's winner, and the first Soap Box Derby champion skidded to a halt astride a two-by-four. He was awarded the $500 first prize, as 45,000 citizens cheered. It was the Depression, and free amusement was welcomed.
Chevrolet saw a good thing and came in as the Soap Box angel, and ignoring the Dayton throng, moved the event to Akron the next year, 1935. It made good business sense because Akron was where a lot of tires were made, and the tire companies had shown a lot of interest in the Derby, and Chevy had to buy a lot of tires.
Be that as it may, the Rubber City took the All-American to its heart that year, and a horde estimated at 90,000 trooped to the course that was laid out on Talmadge Hill. Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and Tom Mix were the first genuine celebrities shipped in, and a breathless republic tuned in to NBC for Graham McNamee's call. Unfortunately for sport's first golden throat, a lad from Oklahoma City went out of control coming down the hill and hammered into the Voice of the All-American. McNamee suffered a concussion and spent two weeks in a local hospital—the most serious injury ever at the Derby. Another Hoosier cub, Maurice Bale Jr., from the ever present Anderson, won, and McNamee awoke in his hospital room the next morning to read this headline in the
Akron Beacon Journal
: THE GREATEST DAY EVER IN AKRON.
In 1936, however, there was an even more glorious occasion, for the city got the WPA to construct an official Derby Downs on a hill out by the airport, next to the Rubber Bowl (where coach Gerry Faust's Akron University Zips now play), with a track 1,175 feet long. Rules grew more formal. Whereas in the first Akron race one kid competed in a contraption that looked like a hot-water tank welded between two bicycles, now boys couldn't spend more than $10 on the project; car and driver couldn't weigh more than a total of 250 pounds; and "axle rods and steering rods may be taken to machine shops to be cut to the proper length, but not for any other work." Real boys knew what that meant.
But the winner would get a $2,000 college scholarship—enough, in those days, to handsomely finance an entire baccalaureate—with the runner-up earning a Chevy. Whatever the rules were, the vehicles kept pace with the burgeoning rewards, and soon the boys were barreling down the incline at speeds as high as 50 mph. Periodically, for safety's sake, the length of the race has been cut, from the original 1,175 feet (with a 16% grade) down to the curious distance of 953'9" (with an 11% grade) that it is today.
In the All-American's heyday, the years just before World War II and for the generation after it, the race settled deep into our national consciousness. Not only did stars of stage and screen journey to the Rubber City, but the young winners, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, were whisked to New York to be introduced to the nation on The Voice of Firestone
radio program, or to California, to ride on a Rose Bowl float. And these callow soprano heroes of Boydom were always front-page.