A few days before the hometown event, David Abramovitz of Oak Forest, Ill. is working on the skeleton of his fourth Soap Box Derby car and reflecting upon his racing past. With one hand he taps a screwdriver to the shrill beat of his transistor radio, with the other he works over a vintage mosquito bite near his shin. The survivor of this elimination race, David knows, will win a free trip to the nationals at Akron, will get to stay in a summer camp for four days and will be a local celebrity. David is 15 years old.
"Well, sure I'd like to go to Akron and win the Derby and everything," he says, "but no matter what happens, I think this is going to be a nice car. You know, when I was younger I used to build tree forts, and then other kids would come by and wreck them. It was O.K., though, the fun was in the building. Now with Derby cars it's the same way."
David is small for his age, 5 feet, 100 pounds. He is polite, changing in mid-word from "yeah" to "yes," making sure not to swear when the hammer hits his thumb. "Dad still won't let me use the round saw because I'm not big enough yet," he says, "so I draw the lines, and then on Saturday he makes the cuts. Dad gives me some ideas, too, but not many. When I was building my first car he wouldn't help at all. He'd sit over there real quiet and watch me taping things up, trying to fill cracks, making a mess."
Before David's first race in 1971 his car was such a mess that his mother told him to hold the sides so it wouldn't fall apart. He won one two-car heat that year, barely beating a soap box that was "as junky" as his.
In the five years of Oak Forest's soapbox races, most of the cars have been like David's—not always rickety or amateurish but obviously driver-built. Indeed, some seemed to have been constructed by kids with suicidal bents. "In 1972 this one friend of mine built his car out of cheap pine and cloth," says David. "You could see through the car. On the way down the hill his brakes came out, the braces fell apart, and when he hit the hay bales the whole thing disintegrated."
The difference between a car like that and the one wheeled to victory in last year's nationals by Jimmy Gronen of Boulder, Colo. is so complete as to be nearly slapstick. Though $75 has been designated as the most that can legally be spent on a car, estimates on the cost of Gronen's sleek fiber-glass car—which included wind-tunnel testing—were as high as $20,000. Gronen was disqualified not long after the event, and a national scandal erupted.
The Gronen vehicle was different from the other cars primarily because of the illegal electromagnet nestled in its snout, a device that gave the car a swift pull each time the metal starting gate dropped. But Robert Lange Sr., Gronen's uncle and legal guardian, who took the blame for the irregularities, claims the magnet was nothing special.
"The whole race is a sham," he says. "The same as it has always been. Everybody cheats in some way. A kid by himself can't build a car that will win at Akron."
Soap Box Derby rules try to ensure uniformity in the cars, specifying a maximum length (84 inches), width (up to 34¾ inches), height (up to 28 inches) and a combined driver-vehicle weight of not more than 260 pounds, as well as the standard Derby wheels and axles. Adult advice is permitted, but all work must be done by the kids. Still, there is plenty of opportunity for the crafty.
Since the car-body shells can be made of most anything short of sheet metal or cast iron, it is easy, for example, to have a fiber-glass mold constructed by an expert machinist and then pass the work off as one's own. Derby officials and participants alike sadly admit such practices are widespread.