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Running the gauntlet of grown-ups
Rick Telander
August 12, 1974
Beset by a few cheaters and a lot of critics, the kids try to carry on
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August 12, 1974

Running The Gauntlet Of Grown-ups

Beset by a few cheaters and a lot of critics, the kids try to carry on

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David, who slept the night before in his new Derby T-shirt, is unsettled by the two unfamiliar entrants. "I think I've got an O.K. chance, but I don't think they should let girls in. What if you lose to one?"

After the delays that always seem to accompany once-a-year events the races begin and the cars glide quietly down the hill two at a time. One car is eliminated each trip. On his first run the driver of The Purple Cow begins rocking back and forth like a galley slave, trying to propel his sluggish car into contention. The steering wires promptly break, and the Cow caroms off the hill, crashing through the snow fences and raising a titter from the small crowd. The boy scrambles out of the car, seemingly pleased, looking back as though half-expecting flames to burst from the splinters.

Leaning way back in his seat, David wins his first two heats by three or four feet, good margins, and advances to the top eight. Both girls also get to the quarterfinals, with Kris Allen, the Libber, being paired against David.

By now the bank thermometer is registering 103°. The racers and the few spectators who are left are starting to wilt, and the sponsoring Jaycees are getting weak from lugging the cars up the ramp.

David comes down the hill against Kris' polished aqua machine, and despite his being tucked under so that only his helmet is visible above his car, the race is not very close. After the loss David pulls his racer off the street behind the hay bales and puts it on a lawn where his father can pick it up.

He calculates that he finished in a tie for fifth place and says he feels "O.K." and that it's been fun. He'll keep the car because he's proud of it. "Well, it certainly was my best one," he says.

As the competition continues, it appears that this is not a very good day for the Oak Forest boys. The two out-of-town girls finish first and third, Kris A lien in her Women's Lib car being the champion and never having a close race. "Oh, brother, why did it come to this?" says John Joyce, whose duty it is to determine the validity of the winner's car before sending it on to Akron. "All I can do is ask for receipts and see if she knows what she's talking about."

The job is a slippery one at best, and when Kris is presented the championship trophy and asked to face a TV camera, the handful of spectators jeer. It is a disheartening scene, with other racers joining in. "Women's Lib stinks! Read the Bible!" screams a red-haired girl. "Ask her how she built the brake!" yells someone else. "She didn't build anything!"

The next day John Joyce meets with Kris and grills her closely for two hours. "Her car conforms to regulations and she knows the technical aspects, the nuts and bolts," he says afterward. "She's a bright kid, and I'd say she probably built the car, and if it comes down to it, I'll go to bat for her."

With the 37th annual Akron race coming up next week, the Soap Box Derby finds itself in a unique position. Never has there been so much bad publicity for the event and never has there been such a negative public attitude. Participating cities are down from 272 two years ago to 100 this year, and only about 5,000 youngsters are involved. Chevrolet, the sponsor since 1934, bowed out in 1972, playing up their $900,000 in yearly expenses. Derby people understand.

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