SI Vault
Frank Deford
August 01, 1988
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August 01, 1988

Real Boys


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?It is still very Midwest, and we need that.

?And, if there were no All-American Soap Box Derby every August in Akron, the Cadet-ettes wouldn't be able to perform on the Thursday before the race as they have for the past 30 years. The Cadet-ettes are an all-girl drum-and-bugle corps, decked out in gold and white, and here is the medley they played for Derby fans: Manhattan; New York, New York; There's No Business Like Show Business; Give My Regards to Broadway; Battle Hymn of the Republic; Stars and Stripes Forever; The Marine's Hymn; The Air Force Song; The Caissons Go Rolling Along Anchors Aweigh; You're a Grand Old Flag; This Land Is Your Land; Yankee Doodle Dandy; This Is My Country; America, the Beautiful; Onward, Christian Soldiers; Blue Hawaii; and God Bless America.

You see, everybody doesn't do it. Everybody doesn't cheat.

In the days before the competition, all the champs are brought Topside, the staging area above the starting line, to have their vehicles inspected and to take one practice run. But for most of their time in Akron—even during their own official parade on Friday night—the champs are bivouacked 15 miles away, at Camp Y-Noah, where they can swim and play games and have pillow fights sans parents. A sign of the times: Virtually all of the senior boys joined with the senior girls in signing a petition to have a dance Thursday night, but some ambivalence about the opposite sex remained—a number of boys also chucked water balloons at the girls.

Assessing this, Alethia Cline, eighth-grader, 4'7�", 80 pounds, said, "No big deal." Alethia is known as Big Al. She was competing in the Rubber City as champion of Chicago, and, more important, she is the daughter of Ken Cline, the '67 winner, bidding to be the first second-generation national champion. Alethia loved being interviewed. Derby officials who have studied this say that the only discernible differences between girl champs and boy champs are 1) girls are "looser" behind the wheel, and 2) girls are better with the press.

This may lead you, as it did me, to wonder what good are the boys. All I can offer is this exchange between a little boy champ and a little girl champ at Camp Y-Noah. Boy: "Wow, do you see these power tools we can win?"

Girl: "Why do I want to win any power tools?"

Nowadays, a quarter to a third of the contestants are female. When the gender line was dropped in 1971, right away five girls entered the race. Two years later Diane Mills, from Carmel, N.Y., was runner-up in the senior division, in a hot-pink racer. The first distaff winner was Karren Stead of Morrisville, Pa., who triumphed in 1975 despite having suffered a dislocated thumb in a water-bomb fight at Camp Y-Noah. IT'S A GIRL! cried all the headlines. Stead, grown up and a retail-store manager now, accepts her place in history comfortably. "It's pretty neat to hit the big time when you're 12," she says. "Otherwise..." and she shrugs.

Girl or boy, most of the kids who enter the All-American do so because they're encouraged to by their fathers. For example, although he was recently let go by U.S. Steel, Marshall Rickard made the Derby a family project, and both his daughter, Kimberly, 15, and his son Jason, 11, became divisional champions of Northeast Ohio. Altogether, perhaps 2,000 kids made racers and competed on the local level in 1987, and a large number of them were the offspring of fathers who work with their hands, in "the trades." Engineers predominated among white-collar fathers.

The greatest number of mothers were housewives, followed by secretaries, teachers and nurses. Soap box families tend to be solid, working class, white, God-fearing, traditional. The Rubber City might have changed, but the families who go to the Ail-American are much the same as ever.

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