The parent as crook is indeed the prime target of Derby scorn. "Jeez, if you just left these kids alone there wouldn't be all this fuss," says John Joyce, Oak Forest's Derby director. "All a kid really wants is three or four trips down the hill with the wind blowing in his kisser." The fact that most children wouldn't know how to cheat if left alone leads Ron Baker, the new general manager of the International Soap Box Derby, Inc., to state bluntly, "If the parents are rotten, the kid will be rotten."
Naturally not all violations are parent-induced nor are they as sophisticated as a battery-powered electromagnet or the bowling-ball device found in a previous Derby car. In that one a bowling ball was released from between the driver's legs at the start and allowed to roll to the front of the car, where it hit the nose, giving an extra boost. Sometimes kids weigh in wearing light clothes and come back to race with heavy shoes or weights in their pockets. Occasionally hunks of metal, anvils, cement blocks or bricks will be added to the car on race day.
David Abramovitz remembers the Oak Forest boy who tossed a paper bag filled with quarters into the nose of his car before his first heat. He was disqualified, but the act puzzled Dave. "If you cheat and win, well, it seems to me—did you really win?"
On race day the 26 Oak Forest cars appear to have the usual assortment of style and craftsmanship. Assembled at the top of a hill in a blocked-off residential area not far from the town hall, the racers resemble low, gaily decorated coffins for midgets.
Though it is only 11 a.m. the temperature sign on the Oak Forest Bank changes from 96° to 97°, and the kids begin clustering around a garbage can filled with ice and free soda. The darker-colored cars start to heat up in the fierce sun, bubbles form, rubber droops, Scotch tape curls and falls to the ground. The small crowd, composed mostly of mothers, fathers and younger brothers and sisters, gathers under trees along the gentle 550-foot slope and tries to stay cool.
A quick glance at the cars leaves one with the impression that this year's junker, the car most likely to self-destruct, is The Purple Cow, a massive clump of maroon plywood and cardboard bearing the scrawled motto A DARING STEP BACKWARDS. Another car, a small white "Porsche," offers a driver-vehicle weight of 100 pounds less than the maximum, a serious disadvantage in a gravity race where weight can help overcome wind resistance. "You know why the Porsche doesn't weigh very much even with the driver in?" an entrant asks his friend. "I'll tell you why. Because the kid only weighs 50 pounds."
There is a car with its paint still wet and another that looks like a gold tablecloth stretched over coat hangers. One car is splintered and sloppy outside but luxurious inside, with leopard-skin seats and padded armrests. David's car is bright green with a blue interior cut from carpet samples. It's his best car, he feels, and since he is 15, the Derby age limit, it's also his last.
Two cars in the group have attracted most of the attention as well as a good deal of skepticism from the other drivers. Each is noticeable for its dissimilarity to the rest, for flawless tapering and symmetry, for absence of mistakes. Both are driven by girls, one from Rockford, the other from nearby Chicago.
Already word is spreading that the Rockford girl has no idea how the molten lead ballast was poured into her car or how the headrest or nose were shaped. Her father answers all questions.
The Chicago girl's name is Kris Allen, and her fiber-glass car is as sleek as a torpedo and bears the lettering WOMEN'S LIBERATION CENTER OF EVANSTON. Her mother explains that Kris is a "very artistic person" who has been working on her vehicle for two years at her grandfather's. Asked if getting the Evanston sponsor was a way of jabbing the boys a bit, Kris answers, "I guess so."