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Even for those blessed enough to actually win the All-American, it never amounted to much more than a fluky Saturday afternoon one August sometime ago. This is never so clear as when you see 17-year-olds walking around Derby Downs, unknown; they are past champions, former heroes, teenage has-beens...and perfectly undisturbed at their fate. "I doubt that winning has changed the dimensions of anyone's life," says Claude Smith, the hometown boy who won 47 years ago. "And I trust we all remember how much luck played a role. The top 10 are all the same—race again, shuffle the deck, and you'd come up with another winner."
"No, not me."
Nowadays when the vehicles are constructed more and more from preboxed $62 kits, luck is probably even a greater factor. Wheels used to matter so much. The builders would drill holes in their wheels, put weights in them. Going down the hill, the drivers would hum, trying to obtain a resonance to, as Terry Townsend, the '57 winner, says, "reach a certain harmony with your wheels." But now the wheels are assigned by lot. And always, winning has depended a great deal on what lane a racer draws, for the burning Midwest sun affects each of the three lanes differently as Derby Saturday wears along.
Still, back before life-styles changed, when a man's life was gauged by what make and model of General Motors car he drove, boys had dads full-time, and when supper was done they built things together. That is the All-American part. Bob Logan, who won in '65, returned with his father to Akron for the golden anniversary. Bob is a Baptist minister now. He and his Dad Logan, who was an engineer, worked 1,000 hours to build his racer, spending all of $23.80. The Logans, p�re et fils, would go through trash containers at cabinet shops, then take snapshots to prove to dubious Derby inspectors that they'd actually found their materials. Bob Sr. shakes his head. "They've taken away a lot of the originality now," he says.
In 1937, when Bob Ballard became the fourth All-American champ, his Dad Ballard was an engineer out of work, selling real estate on commission. Nights, father and son built different balsa wood model cars and then suspended them on rubber bands before a 20-inch fan in an old box that a refrigerator had come in—a wind tunnel—to find the best aerodynamic shape. "We found out, for example, that a curved bottom was important," Ballard says. "I learned more from my father than I ever did in college."
Ken Cline won in 1967 with a car that took 1,400 hours to build at a cost of $35. His car was designed to look like a grasshopper, and the driver's compartment had rabbit-fur lining. Ken was the third Cline brother to enter the All-American, and when the rules were changed in 1971, a younger sister also entered. All of them worked with their father, Dick, an electronics specialist. "Those cars were all boy-built," Ken says, "but my father stood right over me, and if did it wrong, he made me tear it off and do it again. In the old days, they encouraged innovativeness, to bend a rule, not break it.' "
Some dads, it developed, were more liberal in their assessment of the rules. Robert Lange of Boulder, Colo., whose son Robert Jr. won in 1972, declared, in fact, that there was "wholesale cheating" because "it's common knowledge that it is next to impossible for any 11-year-old to build a racer that can win at Akron."
Lange made this observation in 1973 after his nephew, James Gronen, had defended the championship Lange's son had won the year earlier. Derby officials had been suspicious of the Lange Gang and grew more so when young Gronen's heat times became progressively slower. Careful examination showed that when Gronen laid his head back at the start of the race, his helmet activated an electromagnet in the car's nose, causing the racer to burst out of the gate. Gronen's slower times were caused by the battery's running down.
Gronen was stripped of his title, but the car with which his cousin had won the year before conveniently disappeared, and so Robert Jr. still remains listed as the '72 winner. Robert Sr. was charged by a Boulder court with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and for his Fagin-like actions, he was urged by the court to contribute $2,000 to the Boys Clubs.