This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the most spectacular Soap Box Derby wreck that race historian Jeff Iula can remember.
Richard Goudreult, 12, of Santa Anna, Calif., swerved during a trial run at Derby Downs on Aug. 24, 1972. His wooden car crashed into the west wall and disintegrated, filling the air with splintered lumber.
A single wooden bulkhead remained. Goudreult walked away.
Iula, now 60, first volunteered at the All-American Soap Box Derby when he was 10 years old. For the past 50 years, he has seen his share of wrecks and broken bones at Derby Downs.
But nothing compares, he said, to the “Rambling Wreck from Georgia.”
Joe Lunn, 11, was a racer from Columbus, Ga., who suffered a scar across his chest as a reminder of his 1952 wreck at Derby Downs.
Lunn passed the finish line during one of his heats and hit the wall next to the Rubber Bowl. But it was what he did next that made him the stuff of legend at Derby Downs.
Lunn’s team patched up his car with cardboard and tape. He went on to finish first in the last four heats and won the derby.
His sheet-metal racer was the last of its kind. Sheet metal was banned after the crash, as were questionable braking mechanisms, cardboard helmets, loose cables and protruding bolts.
Another crash made national headlines in 1935, the first year the national competition was held in Akron.
Maurice Bale Jr., 13, of Anderson, Ind., the winner of that year’s derby, drove into popular NBC radio announcer Graham McNamee and his colleague Tom Manning when the race was held on the Tallmadge Avenue hill just east of Brittain Road. McNamee continued to broadcast the race, but suffered a concussion and spent two weeks in an Akron hospital.
While Iula has seen “very little” injuries in the past 30 years, accidents still happen. Two crashes on Tuesday brought up the issue of safety at Derby Downs.
In one case, racer Ashley Stoneman, 14, clipped a trailer used to haul Soap Box Derby cars back to the top of Derby Downs as she finished a trial run down the track in her masters division car.
Too close for comfort
Joe Mazur, president and chief executive of the All-American Soap Box Derby, said race officials are still looking into how a trailer ended up parked close enough to the track for a racer to hit it.
Mike Stoneman, Ashley’s father, suspects that a steering cable may have been loose on his daughter’s car, prompting her to turn sharply and crash into the trailer.
“It all happened so fast,” said Ashley, who bruised her left ankle.
As she turned the T-shaped steering column, she tried to pull back to engage the brake. But the brake, triggered by the same mechanism that controls the steering, was locked in place as the wheel was turned.
Tracy Welton, a regional race director, said the brakes on a derby car become ineffective if the wheel is severely turned at the same time.
In the stock and super stock divisions — the smaller of the three classes — the brakes are engaged by pedals mounted in the front of the car. The same setup can be found in a masters car, the largest and fastest style raced at the derby, reaching speeds of up to 35 mph.
But some riders are too tall for pedal brakes and must resort to a hand brake like the one on Ashley’s car.
“I don’t think [this crash] was an issue of anyone’s fault,” Welton said.
But he said there is always room for improvement to guarantee a racer’s safety.
His own son wrecked in a super stock race in Youngstown this year. He wore a padded bike helmet, not the hard plastic helmet that Saturday’s derby riders will wear.
Welton credits his son’s safety to the bike helmet.
“If he had [a hard plastic] helmet on, he’d probably have been really hurt,” Welton said.
Mazur said Akron race officials prefer the hard plastic helmets because, unlike the foam and thin plastic found in a bike helmet, nothing will penetrate them.
The 75th commemorative helmet, which Mazur said brought back an element of tradition, worked Tuesday when Brenner Furlong, 12, of Alaska, hit a guardrail during a test run.
Furlong scraped his chin and cut his arm and leg. He emerged from the car rattled, but not deterred.
“The helmet worked,” Masur said. “It did what it was supposed to.”
Mike Stonemason prefers the plastic helmet for his daughter’s masters car. The driver sits back farther and the helmet fits tightly into the headrest.
But he can see why Welton’s son, who sits forward in his super stock car, may have benefited more from a thicker, padded bike helmet.
Both cars damaged in Tuesday’s mishaps have been repaired and will be ready for Saturday’s race.
“The great thing is the youngsters weren’t hurt,” spokesman Bob Troyer said.
Doug Livingston can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.