The FirstEnergy All-American Soap Box Derby has created a “museum” on the cusp of the 75th running in three weeks.
Derby officials are displaying 77 historical cars, plaques of champs and hall of fame honorees, and memorabilia in an outbuilding at the Topside entrance on George Washington Boulevard.
That might sound modest, but just three weeks ago the treasures were gathering dust in the basement of the derby administration building and lumped sight unseen in a tractor-trailer.
“I said, ‘Why not put these where people can really enjoy them?’ ” said President Joe Mazur, who is working to rebuild the popularity of the nonprofit. The derby museum — while admittedly rudimentary right now — aims to someday have the flavor of the Indianapolis 500 museum, he said.
The champ cars in the new museum — officially called the Hall of Fame and Museum — represent about half of the 140 vehicles that have crossed the All-American finishing line as winners over the years.
All of the winning cars were supposed to be retired, but the derby didn’t have enough space to store all of them, so some cars were disposed of or went home with their owners.
Akron local derby volunteer Bruce Hunsicker preserved about 40 vehicles in a tractor-trailer on his property, Mazur said. Other cars came from nooks and crannies at the derby and from race alumni who sought visibility for their creations.
The featured vehicles include a replica of one of the first cars to race in an event that led to the first Soap Box Derby race.
Bob Gravett’s car — jerry-built from old lumber, wagon wheels and tin — was the inspiration for the initial derby race in Dayton in 1933, the year before the event moved to Akron. Gravett’s car is the derby’s official emblem.
The collection also includes a replica of the infamous winning car from 1973, when James Gronen lost his title for attaching a magnet to the nose of his car.
That car is important historically because the cheating scandal led officials to examine cars more closely both before and after a race.
In fact, part of the inspection process begins next week when 450 local and rally racers from around the country ship their cars to the All-American’s home at Derby Downs for reviews that precede the next championship race on July 21.
The cars will be examined in the museum, a long blue warehouse at the Topside entrance to Derby Downs.
Champ lounge debuts
Right outside the door of the warehouse on a hill overlooking the Akron Fulton Airport the derby will feature another innovation for this year’s race — a champ lounge.
“It’s all about the experience. We want the champs to have a very pleasant experience,” Mazur said. For the first time, racers will have access to a tent with Xboxes, computers, boom boxes, refrigerators, TVs, picnic tables and more during their downtime.
A mini-All-American Soap Box Derby race has been added this year. Racers will receive a small wood, metal and plastic car when they arrive in Akron that they can paint and decorate. “This is our version of the Pinewood Derby,” the Cub Scout racing program, Mazur said. The winning racer will get a title and a trophy.
Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., which has been a sponsor in the past, provided money to increase the scholarships to a total of $30,000. That means the six top winners in the rally and local divisions each will get $5,000, about double of last year. Another $15,000 in awards for second- and third-place winners will not change.
The awards for the top winners undoubtedly are more generous than they have been in the recent past. When Chevy fueled the derby as the national sponsor in the 1950s, the winner got a full-ride scholarship and the second-place winner, a new car.
“So we’ve got a way to go,” Mazur said.
As for the museum, it will be open to the public during derby office hours from August through June.
While it will be closed in July because of preparations for the All-American, the museum will be open to the public from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. July 19, the Thursday of race week.
Mazur is accepting memorabilia for the museum, from helmets to cars to press hats to photos. Call him at 330-733-8723.
Carol Biliczky can be reached at 330-996-3729 or firstname.lastname@example.org.