Mason Bell, a former general manager of the All-American Soap Box Derby who worked to modernize the event in the 1960s and early ’70s, died Tuesday in Indianapolis.
He was 97.
“Mason was one of my favorite people of all time,” said Jeff Iula, who hung around the derby as a youngster and grew up to become its general manager. “I felt like he was an uncle to me.”
Born in Clear Spring, Md., Mr. Bell attended Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory of Music and became a talented violinist.
“His original goal was to be a music teacher for which he attended Peabody Conservatory in his native Baltimore,” according to a statement released by the All-American Soap Box Derby. But “World War II derailed his musical career ambitions. He served in the U.S. Army from 1941 until 1946. Following discharge, he joined Chevrolet.”
His first involvement in the Soap Box Derby came in 1963 while working for Chevrolet in Baltimore. He learned that then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was seeking a program for disadvantaged youth in Washington, D.C., and Mr. Bell talked him into starting a local derby race, because Chevrolet had been the national event’s sponsor since 1934.
The successful race in Washington caught the attention of management, and Mr. Bell was transferred to Chevrolet headquarters in Detroit in 1964 as director of youth activities. That title also gave him the reins of the All-American Soap Box Derby.
While he continued to live in Detroit, he spent most of his summers in Akron, running the program from 1964 through 1972. It was a period in which Chevrolet was constantly at risk of dropping out as the derby’s national sponsor, Iula said.
“Mason kept fighting them,” said Iula, who credited Mr. Bell with keeping Chevy’s money and clout around through 1972.
Mr. Bell was instrumental in redesigning the derby experience, changing everything from the downtown parade to the awards show.
“He made it a big production,” Iula said. “He was the greatest promoter of the derby.”
Under Mr. Bell’s stewardship, the derby grew to include more than 270 local race communities in the United States, Canada, Europe, the Philippines and Okinawa.
In his position with Chevrolet, Mr. Bell also managed America’s Junior Miss Pageant and headed Chevrolet’s Driver Education Program.
When Chevrolet began sponsoring the Junior Olympics in 1973, he worked with the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), which operated the event.
After retiring from Chevy in 1974, Mr. Bell became AAU’s director of sports development, served as its director from 1982 to 1986, then became president of the AAU Foundation through 1989.
“Mason Bell, who was inducted into the All-American Soap Box Derby Hall of Fame in 1998, will be remembered as a man of class and integrity, who dedicated much of his life to programs that enriched the lives of young people,” the All-American Soap Box Derby said in its statement.
Mr. Bell’s remains will be cremated and interred in the family plot in Clear Spring, Md. A memorial service will take place at a later date.