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The Great American Soap Box Derby

Fred Tomasello Jr.

n the summer of 1955, at 11 years of age, I decided to enter the Soap Box Derby. 

Not only had I worked for a couple of years with my uncle as a carpenter’s helper, Catholic School had taught me to read and write really well. When I transferred to public school for the 6th grade, I was way ahead of the rest of the class in every subject. I passed tests without cracking open a book. 

Naturally, I realized I was a genius and could do anything. Hence, I decided to become the next Great American Soap Box Derby Champion

As a prelude to embarking on the Soap Box Derby, my experience included making wooden scooters from 2x4s, attaching an apple, peach or orange box crate and customizing the front with soda pop tops and reflectors for night riding. For wheels, we repurposed our indestructible metal roller skates. Many of us got skates for Christmas and on that joyous morning, huge gangs of kids could be seen skating together having fun on the streets of West Tampa.

Such Christmas gifts would be the starting point of a great sojourn towards our destined derby. In this way, a Christmas gift could evolve into a lesson learned.

As the story goes, my uncle’s carport became my garage. I availed myself of all his saws, nails, screws, clamps, hammers, pliers, etc. and got down to business. I tried to carefully follow the “plan,” and if I didn’t have or couldn’t find a particular part, I found ways to improvise.¬†

Money wasn’t an issue because I didn’t have any. 

The biggest challenge was the steering wheel. The easy way we steered our carts was to use clothes hanger cord tied to each end of the front “axle” and just pull the cord to turn the cart left or right like one does when riding a horse and using the reins. 

Well, that was too simple for soap boxes. 

According to the plans, a steering wheel was required so I used a broomstick and nailed the cord that operated the front steering to the broomstick under the “hood.” I nailed a short piece of wood the the other end to use as a steering wheel. It worked but one needed to turn the steering at least 10 revolutions in each direction to make the cart turn. I figured, correctly I might add, that this wouldn’t be a factor in the Great American Soap Derby race because the carts went down a ramp and remained in the same direction for the entire race.

After three long days of solid, sweaty work, I took the Soap Box out for a spin in our neighborhood. Of course all the kids came out, grins on their faces as they evaluated the contraption.¬†Everyone laughed and made fun of me except for my best friend Jose who joined me by pushing me down the street as I showed him how the elaborate steering wheel worked. Then he got into the driver’s seat and I pushed him for a while.¬†

When the other kids saw how much fun we were having, they all wanted a ride but I told them to go to hell.

hen Derby Day arrived, me and Jose lugged the car all the way downtown, a couple of miles in each direction. A huge crowd was already milling around the man-made hill used to start the races and the temporary grandstands were filled with spectators. All the “cars” we saw were slick, well-crafted vehicles, finely sanded and brightly painted to perfection. They all used similar wheels and had numbers professionally painted on their sides along with sponsors’ names. 

As we pushed our craft down the street, crowds parted and got out of our way, staring at us, mouths agape. Dads grabbed their kids who were all wearing store bought drivers helmets, protectedly pulled them behind their bodies and shielded them and their cars from the hand-made, home-built carpenter’s contraption I was so proud to debut as my first foray into Tampa’s Soap Box Derby competition.

Suddenly, a couple of officials stepped in front of us and asked what were we doing.

“I’m gonna enter the Soap Box Derby,” I proclaimed.

“No you’re not,” the official responded. “Now get that piece of shit out’a here before I call the cops.”

1958 Soapbox Derby winner

Disappointed and angry, Jose and I took turns pushing each other on the long, sad ride home to West Tampa where we stopped at the local Junior High School.

Between the school and the shop building, there was a square courtyard bordered with a sidewalk on four sides. Several of our friends were roller skating and racing their home-made scooters as we approached so we joined them with our soap box derby car and took turns racing around the “track.”

Steering became a problem. When two people were running as fast as they could while pushing the cart and the driver approached the 90 degree turn, by the time he spun the wooden steering wheel enough times to make the turn, the cart had already crashed head-first into the wall. Our “race” turned into a demolition derby! We all took turns crashing the cart into a wall until the destruction was complete. 

Thank God no one was seriously injured, impaled themselves on the broomstick steering wheel or was punctured by a nail or broken splinter of wood. 

All the anger and disappointment stored in my body melted to laughter and fun with my friends. 

Lessons were learned that day. 

Compared to other kids in town, I realized we were “poor” while many of them were “rich.” Rejecting us and denying us a chance to compete in the Derby gave me a small but bitter taste of discrimination that still stings today. 

As Jose and I looked at those carts, we knew damn well those kids didn’t build them by themselves as required by the rules. Their fathers helped them by buying the best possible parts to compete against each other. All those rich kids had to do was put on their helmets, grin at the competition and allow gravity to softly propel them through the Great American Soap Box Derby of life.

week before I wrote this story, I inquired on Facebook if anyone had pictures of the Great American Soap Box Derby in Tampa around 1955.

One of my Facebook friends, Bob Gomez, reported he WON the race! 

Actually, he came in second, but the first place kid was disqualified because his dad had “greased the wheels” for him which was against the rules.

At lease there was a bit of justice back in the day. 

Today, I’m still searching.    

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