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Hagerty Employee

You don't need horsepower to cheat: The 1973 Soap Box Derby championships

"In the year of Watergate, the derby too fell victim to cynical adults for whom victory justified any means," narrator Peter Thomas states boldly. The year is 1973, and the scandal we're about to discuss involved hidden secrets, intense investigations, and a reckoning that few expected—oh, and they also impeached Richard Nixon, but that was child's play compared to what happened at the start line of the 36th annual All-American Soap Box Derby.


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I am very familiar with this car. It is still here on Akron and you can see it opened up with the magnate and wiring. 


I know people who were there that day. They said the car just flew out of the gate and it was obvious that something was wrong to everyone. These cars win races in thousandths of a second not by feet. 


Now today there is still some cheating. It is not as obvious  but it is still there by those who know the tricks. One ploy often used is the wheels have two bearings. And if you bend the axles enough it will run on one bearing. This way you use a wheel with one bad bearing that will help you but hurt the opponet as you have to wheel swap during the races using two of your wheels  and two of your opponents. We have been a victim here more than once. 


The truth is kids stopped building these cars long ago. Only a rare few lend a hand. Unfortuantly many cars today are not built even by the families or anyone living in the home. Many are past race fathers who build for others now. Not really  the intent of the rules when you see them bring the car the kid races it and then the builder takes the car home and the kid goes home with the parents. 


The trick is two parts One is to setting up the car is to get the tail weight right and get the alignment correct. It is pure physics of getting more weight up the hill farther to push the car but not so much that it over burdens the rear wheels on flat part of the track. 


The final factor is the kid has to drive as well as they can. Knowing the track and how to get the car faster by driving the lane precise is important. 


We were blessed with someone teaching us how to set up and tune the car. We know well how to do it but it takes time to learn


If no one is there to teach you it can be a very difficult thing to learn and race. It is much like real racing. 


Some families have raced for years like the Pettys and their knowledge is great. They are not cheaters but they have learned much from decades of racing. Some of them raced and then their kids and then grand kids and even great grand kid. Much is learned with that much racing. If you get to where you can run with them you have accomplished  much. 


I enjoyed our run. Yes a few bad apples  can piss you off but we did it the right way and proud of what we did. We have nothing to be ashamed of and met a lot of good people in the process. 




Intermediate Driver

Richard Nixon was NOT impeached. He resigned, the only president to ever have done so, amid the Watergate Scandal, but the House of Representatives never impeached him. If you don't know history, please, stick to automotive stories...

Community Manager

Thanks for bringing this to our attention, we have edited the article accordingly. 


As Mom would say, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions"...but I would think that any augmentation in the form of added parts would have been in the rulebook. If not, I suppose the Smokey Yunick defense of "you didn't say I COULDN'T do that" might apply. It's human - and especially, racing - nature to find, as per the Penske motto, the Unfair Advantage. Lest I be mistaken as universally supporting such trickery, in this application - theoretically teaching youngsters the ethics of honorable competition - the amusement of novel engineering is tinged with sadness at its application.


As a three-year contestant in St Petersburg, FL in the early 1960's, I can recall looking at some competitor's cars and KNOWING that the entrant had little, if anything, to do with the actual construction of the car.  Fiberglass and other aspects of the work were completely flawless and the design and construction were obviously beyond the skill level of even the most advanced early teenager. 

I managed a third place in my last year of competition and still have the trophy proudly displayed.  My father NEVER laid a hand on my car except to help load it in a borrowed station wagon for early morning test drives down the hill.  I'm sure he and my mother were pretty anxious when my brakes failed and I crossed in front of an early morning laundry delivery truck at the bottom of the hill.  The design and construction skills gained during those years, including the use of hand and power tools, have served me well over the years. 

I'm only sorry to see how the event has evolved and, in many respects (at least in my view), deteriorated over the years.  It's only a shadow of what it used to be.   


If McLaren or Penske had done this, it would have been called innovating. This kid was being booed before anyone knew how he was winning, although the previous year's winner being built by the same man gives a clue. Perhaps the starting line trick was more common than the narrative suggests, and the establishment just didn't like some near-orphan winning their pageant. 

New Driver

In June 1972, I won the local soap box race in Norfolk, NE.  Got to experience a week at Derby Downs.  My car was Plymouth lime green and they wouldn't allow me to have that color since Chevy sponsored the race, so I chose blue.  I forgot about the police escort introduction, but it's part of the festivities.  Unfortunately, I lost in the first round, but the person that beat me ended up in 6th place.

After the race in Akron, we back to the Chevy dealer in Norfolk to get my sister's car.  She had finished 2nd to me so they impounded her car in case I couldn't race mine.  They had my car and hers in the back corner of the dealership.  A grumpy old guy said we could have my sister's car but not mine.  That was all my mom needed to hear, so she said let's take mine too.  So we did!  No one ever came after us (we lived 30 mi from Norfolk), but Chevy was dropping its sponsorship, so they probably didn't care.  Less space in their dealership being taken up by a stupid car.  But it wasn't stupid to me.  It's sitting in my basement 48 yrs later.

The video mentions some malarkey with the '72 race winner but doesn't elaborate.  I think the winning car "disappeared".  Did you catch where the narrator mentions how Jimmy's car look similar to the '72 car?  Hmmm...



To author Phillip Thomas: They DIDN'T impeach Nixon!!! Can we get it straight!!! They impeached Bill Clinton!

Community Manager

Definitely yes, we have made appropriate edits to that effect. 


I am a great fan of of Yunick and Donahue and Penske. What many mistake for cheating was not cheating with them. 

Both employed things that were not in the rules and were not illegal in most cases. 

The Chevelle stock car that ran with no tank... he had a long large fuel line. There was no rules on how long the line could be. 

Penske acid dipped his Camaro. No rule on that and the final top just gave it support. The Penske fast fill fuel tower again not illegal. The 917-30 nothing illegal. 

Now after they tried these things rules were put in place to make them illegal.  These teams worked grey areas. 

Now this derby car was not legal even by rules of that era. The intent was to break the rules and they knew it or they would not have hidden the the system in the car. 

I respect those who read the rules and find an advantage but those who knowingly break the rules and try to hide the infraction should never be tolerated. 

Today the derby is pretty strict and while you can get away with things at a rally you will not get away with at the big derby. You have to tear the car down and they look at everything. Just a few years ago a kid was disqualified for a glued down mounting plate for an axle. It was clear in the instructions.

pit is not to be glued down. He was caught and stripped of the win in Akron like this car. The advantage was small but it still was an Illegal advantage and broke the rules. 

Wheels today are the problem area. Today the bearing games is played and it really should not be. They now have wheels with sealed bearings that I feel could be marked to see if they were tampered with. 

They do the random wheel swaps while it helps it still does not solve all the issues. Because of this people bring junk wheels and often you get stuck with bad sets. We took good care of our wheels and often they were on the winning car at the end. I finally had a good set that got hit into a guardrail so I too just used old wheels at rally’s. Why lose a expensive wheel for no real gain? 

To be honest there are more ways to cheat but they are beyond me as we were not going to do it. I just could not be part of that. 

One thing I would love to see the derby do is bring some other skills to the races. Put cones out there and let them slalom down the hill. Wider shells could make it Safe. Up grade the brakes to a safer hydraulic system. 

And for fun for the kids add a small parachute like a JR dragster. 

Even make the cars look like a JR dragster would be cool. 

They just need something to jazz it up and break out of the old ways to restart the learning curve, 



Pit Crew

I am sorry, we just don't let children roll down the hill in a Cardboard box ?.

Parental guidance - ?

What's that story ?

 Derby National Control Board,..

Oh, boy - some well meaning fools telling me I have to wear a mask...


Pit Crew

I apologize for my last comment.

First, the writing was to Hagerty first-Rate standards.

Thank you for the reminiscence.


Second, anybody who aspires to do anything in life the BEST deserves admiration.

Like Boy Scouts - a path to becoming a man through merit.


The Cowboy Hat you bought at Wal*Mart don't make you a Cowboy.




Used to work with a guy who was a youth baseball coach (and a good one) for years. He finally quit, and he said it was because while the kids were great, the parents were insane. The kids wanted to play baseball, the parents wanted to win at all costs.  

Intermediate Driver

Given the lies we now hear each and every day...this seems quaint.