Bob Troyer, the Firestone p.r. director who helps out the All-American Soap Box Derby (the organization has a salaried staff of only three and a total annual budget of $400,000), says that even with temporary stands it would have been impossible for there to have ever been more than 7,500 seats or a total crowd of more than 25,000 spectators at the All-American.
One Hundred Thousand was an amiable myth, and nobody in the Rubber City questioned it, anymore than anyone but a curmudgeon would challenge the celebrity credentials of Wixted. (When I gave in and asked, I learned that he is the ail-American football captain on ABC's sitcom Growing Pains.) Or, as Mayor Don Plusquellic (A Plus for Akron) was saying the night before the 1987 All-American, "It's always great when the eyes of the world are on Akron."
Alas, since Chevrolet pulled its p.r. legions out, this is not quite the case anymore. The All-American doesn't make any of the TV sports anthologies (which appear to cover anything else that moves), and the day after the big race you might not find a single word about it in the newspapers of New York or Los Angeles or Miami. Since two Connecticut kids happened to win last year, that earned a tiny paragraph in The Boston Sunday Globe
under this little headline: MISCELLANY: N.E. BOYS WIN SOAP BOX DERBY
But Akron put on a dandy parade the night before. The streets were spotless, the crowds appreciative. Turner, the first champion, was the honorary parade marshal, and there were scores of drum-and-bugle corps.
Not only that, but the next morning out at Derby Downs, there was a truncated version of the same parade all over again. I enjoyed it every bit as much the second time. Parades are swell, wherever they are. Because all the politicians want to be in them, somebody other than a politician must run them.
Soon it would be time for the golden anniversary All-American, 91 heats. Flags lined the 953'9", 11% incline. There were many banners, such as NORTHERN BATHROOM TISSUE. Across the finish line, a banner proclaimed HELPING YOUTH TODAY FOR TOMORROW and ADVENTURE IN SPORTSMANSHIP AND SKILL.
The programs were free. Linda, the yo-yo lady, was in a silver-sequin outfit, with green, red and gold.
Soon it was clear that Lane 3 was the favored path. Evidently, the sun was hitting it right.
But the photo-finish camera didn't always work. It had to be fixed, because with so many identical kit cars, there were going to be a lot of photo finishes. "We're trying our best," the public-address announcer explained. But this meant that up at the starting line the children had to wait, sweating in their coffinlike cars. This was especially true of the seniors, who lie on their backs in their racers, the better to cut wind resistance. It also cut their air supply, and the starters were kept busy fanning the champs to keep them from fainting.
The big concern at the bottom of the course was emotional stress. "Counselor! Counselor!" the cries would go up when one of the losers appeared exceptionally upset, and at that, a designated comforter from the Camp Y-Noah staff would dash over. All of the losers were escorted to the Champs' Box near the finish line, and there they milled about, getting consoled by their parents, who stuck fingers through a wire fence, like in the prison movies. Almost nobody watched the winners race on, heat after heat.