Jimmy Gronen was dozing in front of the TV 40 years ago when he heard the words that shook his young world.
“Walter [Cronkite], the most trusted man in America, appeared and said, ‘Well, ladies and gentlemen, there is one boy in America unhappier than Richard Nixon this evening, and it’s little Jimmy Gronen,’ ” he recalled in a recent interview.
So marked the beginning of the end of Gronen’s 1973 triumph at the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron.
“Is nothing sacred any more? Is there no area of American life beyond taint?” inquired a plaintive Time Magazine.
“It’s like discovering that your Ivory Snow girl has made a blue movie,” Akron prosecutor Stephen Gabalac said at the time.
August 1973 was a time of turmoil for both Gronen, 14, and the 36th All-American Soap Box Derby, the international youth gravity race held at Akron’s Derby Downs.
A new day had dawned. The year before, Chevy had withdrawn its lavish sponsorship — up to $800,000 a year — and turned the race over to the Akron Chamber of Commerce, which hadn’t been able to nail down a sponsor.
Gronen was in the midst of his own crisis. His father had died, his mother was hospitalized at the Mayo Clinic, his brother was living on the West Coast and he was staying in Boulder, Colo., with his uncle, ski boot manufacturer Robert Lange, and his family.
Derby racing was huge with Lange. His son, Bobby, had won the championship the previous year. The senior Lange was eager to repeat the victory with his nephew.
But “the Soap Box Derby wasn’t my thing. It was never my thing,” Gronen said.
At the last minute and somewhat reluctantly, he remembers saying yes to participating — and the rest was history.
He said he built his own car — one of the few derby racers to actually do so, he maintains. He implanted an electromagnet in the nose of his gold and green racer on the advice of his uncle. When he pressed his head back into the headrest, wiring connected to the magnet gave him a little boost past the steel starting gate.
The scam quickly unraveled, however.
Bob Troyer, then in his first year as the race’s public relations chairman, remembers that onlookers started to question Gronen’s performance almost immediately. They brought photos of the race start to officials that showed Gronen’s car jumping slightly ahead of the others.
Suspicious derby officials carted Gronen’s vehicle to what was then the Goodyear Airdock for X-rays, then held a news conference at which they sliced the car apart for dramatic effect.
Gronen and Lange acknowledged what they had done, but maintained that many racers also bent rules.
“Anybody participating in derby races with eyes and ears would soon learn, as I did, that .... the Derby rules have been consistently and notoriously violated by some participants without censure or disqualifications,” Lange wrote to the Boulder Jaycees, sponsor of the Colorado race that sent Gronen to the All-American.
Gronen echoed that in the book, Champions, Cheaters and Childhood Dreams: Memories of the Soap Box Derby, written by Melanie Payne, a former Beacon Journal business reporter.
“It’s not like the Soap Box Derby at this time was this pristine, pure thing and then my year came along and it was transformed by my corrupt act,” Gronen said in the 2003 book. “The derby was corrupt before we arrived.”
In fact, cheating was common at the derby in those days, especially from about 1965 to 1975, said Jeff Iula, unofficial derby historian and former derby official who now is a Cuyahoga Falls councilman.
“They didn’t inspect the cars nearly as close as they do today. And you only had to buy the wheels and axles from the derby,” he said. Today’s racers are required to purchase the whole kit to assemble the car.
Iula said he has heard that race cars were rigged with weights and special wheels, that professionals built cars, that magnets were used as early as the 1950s.
“It was Watergate on wheels,” he said, referring to the Nixon saga that was unfolding on the national stage at the same time as the derby cheating scandal.
Troyer, the longtime race spokesman, said he did not know what happened when Chevy ran the race. He said he had no firsthand knowledge of cheating before Gronen.
“It was a fine American program that had never had issues like this before,” he said. “It was a sad and disappointing day.”
Repercussions followed for both Gronen and Lange.
Gronen lost his $7,500 college scholarship. Derby officials asked him to return the trophy and silk jacket he received as the champion. He refused, destroying the trophy and eventually giving away the jacket.
Lange was prosecuted by then-Boulder County District Attorney Alex Hunter and agreed to pay a $2,000 settlement to a boys club. (Decades later, Hunter went on to investigate the death of child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey.)
When he returned to the All-American as a spectator a few years later, Lange was booed, but public sentiment seemed to rally around Gronen, a child led astray.
“I feel terrible for the kid,” said Colis Yarborough of Elk Grove, Calif., father of the racer named winner in Gronen’s place. “It’s just terrible that he had to go through something like this. ... The kid was fantastic,” he told the Beacon Journal just three days after the fateful race.
In fact, the scandal was bruising for Gronen. He has begun to deal with the fallout of the race only in the past few years, he said in a telephone interview. He has given only a couple of interviews since 1973 and eschews photos.
He’s elusive, almost mysterious, about what he has done in the past 40 years. Much of it seems to have revolved around spirituality. He has lived in a Zen monastery. He might write a book about religion based on his research.
“What I have been most concerned with in my adult life is not popular fare,” he wrote in an email. “My entire adult life has been involved with researching what our ultimate possibility is as human beings, and how that might or could be translated in such a way to benefit our challenged world.”
He followed the downward trajectory of bicyclist Lance Armstrong’s career with great interest, he said, writing: “I wonder if Soap Box Derby racing, car racing, bicycle racing really develops the soul. When there’s money and prestige involved, you can almost bet that the ethics are questionable.”
May write book
He attended — but did not graduate from — college, loves to race sailboats, loves to arrange flowers, did not marry. He goes by the surname Ryder, the last name of a family member whom he respects.
Eventually, he said, he might write a book about the derby and how it influenced him. He also is in the midst of another transition, selling his home in Boulder to move back to his hometown of Dubuque, Iowa, “to get in touch with my roots.”
There he again will be a trustee for the historical Four Mounds estate on the Mississippi River, a property his grandmother gave to the city of Dubuque in 1982.
He would like to introduce infrared saunas to the estate’s bed and breakfast and fire pits to the property. He helped to found the Four Mounds Foundation, which seeks to preserve the property, promote education and develop youth programming.
As for the derby, it has never recovered the financial strength it had during the days of Chevy’s sponsorship.
Current President Joe Mazur, who was a child during the 1973 scandal, has been trying to refresh the sport, while guaranteeing that everything is above board.
“It’s extremely difficult to cheat these days,” he said. “The car is inspected before and after the local race and impounded until it’s time to get to our race.”
Racers used only derby-provided wheels and axles back in 1973, and built their cars as they saw fit. Today’s participants buy a kit from the derby that includes all the items they will need to build their car.
Cars are shipped to Akron ahead of the race and inspected before they’re allowed to compete. Non-sanctioned parts are not allowed.
Last year, more than 95 percent of the race cars passed inspection with no flaws whatsoever, a record, Mazur said.
Still, he reserves a little awe for the ingenuity of Gronen’s racer, which today sits in the Soap Box Derby Museum amid all the other winning racers.
“I appreciate the technology,” Mazur said. “Any way you look at it, they cheated, but they used their noodle. It was engineered in a cool way.”
More than 400 racers are rolling into Akron now for the 76th race Saturday.
Troyer, the All-American spokesman, said the fact the race is continuing shows it is strong.
“We were serious about making it fair for everybody,” he said. “It’s been 39, almost 40 years.”
Carol Biliczky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3729.