After getting your ass handed to you at the local mini-golf go-kart track by eight year olds, you’ve given up on your own dreams of racing F1 (don’t feel bad, the little whipper snappers have a hundred pound weight advantage on you in a 5 horsepower go-kart). Maybe if the kart had a little more juice in the golf buggy batteries inside, you’d have stood a better chance. But the reason you were at the go-kart track in the first place is because you’re a daddy now. In fact, one of the eight year olds that was shaming you in Turn 1 was your own kid. During these times, I might get flashbacks of the time when my kid may have asked for an outdoor swing set. Now he wants to go for go-karting instead.
You have looked into competitive go-kart racing for your child but after you did the math and saw it was going to cost the same amount to get a competitive go-kart and equipment for the kid as it would to buy you a new Lotus, you realized it ain’t gonna happen. Now what? I have the solution for you. Congratulations Dad, you’re now getting a racing promotion, you are going to be “crew chief” as you and your kid take on The All-American Soap Box Derby.
This isn’t as cheap as the Pinewood Derby but it’s still reasonably priced. A basic stock kit from All-American Soap Box Derby (AASBD) is 387 bucks. However that is a bit misleading because that kit does not come with wheels ($100) or any weight (around $100 more once all is said and done). So you are looking at a 600 dollar investment which does sound like a lot (Hint: get Grandma and Grandpa to sponsor). Plus entry fees for the weekend race can be between 35 to 70 bucks. Think that is too much? Try to budget a season of racing for a kid in quarter midgets ($25,000 and up).
The All-American Soap Box Derby (AASBD) is the main player in the soap box derby world and they run a National Championship in Akron, Ohio every year. The AASBD has local clubs and chapters nationwide for kids to compete in and try to qualify to attend the national championship. AASBD requires that the kids be between the ages of 8 and 17 years old and that they use the provided AASBD cars and wheels.
There are other sanctioning bodies locally that have more grassroots events with home built cars allowing for a lot of ingenuity in their design and less cost. Those local events also let younger kids participate. The biggest problem with these smaller events is they are generally hard to find out about. I lived in a city for three years and then found out by chance one day we had a race (I saw a car in the back of a pick-up at an intersection and chased the driver down like a madman). I found out they had been running a soap box derby race for kids for over 20 years.
For the kids running down the hill it is an absolute blast. They have the wind in their face, they are running neck and neck with another competitor down a steep hill. For a lot of kids it is their first experience of real speed (believe it or not we have seen speeds up to 32 miles per hour in these cars). As the father, it will give you a mild heart attack as you run down the hill cheering your kid along and hoping that the wheels you put on the car hold up.
The cars don’t have much in the way of moving parts so these cars can last for years, being passed down from big brother to little sister in some cases. Occasionally I have seen some cars run off course and hit a barrier (which isn’t good for the barrier or cars, but the kids always walk away unscathed). The good news is they don’t have internal combustion engines so there won’t be any late night motor swaps or expensive machine shop bills. Just align the axles and you are good to go.
Before you can head to the track you are going to need to buy and build the car. For AASBD you have three choices, Stock, Super Stock or Masters. Stock is the easiest kit to build and doesn’t require painting. Super Stock requires a lot of paint and Bondo to get the car smooth and aerodynamic. Masters is the “builders” class and requires hundreds of hours of work to get the car “perfect” for racing. The instructions are easy to use and a basic tool kit can build a Stock car. The kids and dads can work together assembling the car (which is part of the fun). If you want to personalize the car and give it a little flair (which the kids love) you can add decals or designs to the car. We always used Figstone Graphics since they do custom stickers for any sort of race car, whether it has an engine or not.
Once the car is built, get the car up to weight by adding metal plates in the interior (check for the maximum weight in your class and weigh the car with your kid in it). Next thing to do is find a race and pack up the truck. It’s time to let the kid cruise down a hill.
At the event the car will be inspected. Tech inspection is very serious in the AASBD. Every single bolt has to be O.E.M. and they measure and weigh the cars quite closely. This is not the place for Smokey Yunick engineering if you know what I mean (for those who don’t, it is known as creative rule book reading or simply: cheating). The car will also be weighed before and after the race.
There will be a grid sheet and a bracket set up for the kids to begin eliminations. The grid sheet will tell you which lane you are running in and which opponent you will be racing against. Get in line and hurry up and weight. Once you are up you can place the car into the ramps and then wish your kid luck, you have done all you can, it is in their hands now.
The kids will head down the hill and you will scream your lungs out for them to “drive straight” and “don’t use the brakes until after the finish!” The kids won’t listen to you, but they will have the time of their life while racing.
After the kids make their runs the cars are trailered back up the hill on these trick car haulers (which is great for dad’s back). At the top of the hill a “wheel swap” is performed where the wheels off of one car are traded with another. Then the same two kids race each other again in opposite lanes from the first race. This way there is no lane or wheel advantage. It is the difference between the times of both runs (one for each kid in each lane) that determines the winner of the round. The winner will move up the bracket to the next round, the loser will be out, or move to a secondary bracket (called the loser’s bracket) to compete in just like in E.T. Bracket Drag Racing.
The more races you win, the more runs you get down the hill. Simple as that. Eventually there will be nobody else to race and you are the winner. Well, when I say “you” I mean, “your kid.”
You will find a great group of people volunteering and running these races. These things take a lot of time to put on and many children get to enjoy the benefits from the work of a few people who selflessly donate their time to organize the race. It is a family affair and there are lots of dads on hand to help with the construction of the cars and set up advice. You learn quickly that even though these cars are “stock” some just seem to be faster than others (just like in any form of racing). Spending time with the dads who build the fast cars will usually earn you a few set up tips that might help your kid’s car scoot down the hill fast too. The kids that race in these events are always smiling and having a good time. They are competing with each other but the competition itself always seems to take a back seat to just the good time of running down the hill at speed. Usually it is the dads who care about who wins the race or not, the kids just like driving the cars. All kids play with toys, it’s just that some of them are cars.
For the kids and parents winning one of these events is awesome. There is usually a trophy presentation where winners receive Wooden Trophies and sometimes the kids even get their names in the newspaper. This is pretty cool for a ten year old kid. But even if you don’t win, kids find glory in just being a part of the event. Sometimes there are parades prior to the races and the kids get to participate and show off their cars. Kids love this sort of stuff. They are in the limelight for a weekend and it’s a neat thing to seem them experience. For dads, the crew chiefs, it is the satisfaction that the car you built brought home victory for the family race team.
OH, YOU WANT TO WIN, DO YA?
In order to do well in All American Soap Box Derby or any other local derby you have to have a competitive car. The only engine in these races is ole Mr. Newton and his theory of gravity. Therefore the only thing keeping these cars from heading downhill super fast is friction. You need to find a way to get rid of as much friction as possible. Alignment is a big factor in this case. Using alignment tools will help you to build a car that isn’t fighting itself with a toe-in/toe-out condition or cambered wheels (putting too much weight on only one part of the bearing).
The other thing to fight friction is to give the car as much weight as allowed and by putting that weight toward the rear of the car (to give it as much potential energy as possible). The cars can only weigh a certain amount at the event, but the car that weighs as close to as possible what that maximum amount will have an advantage.
But the real key to winning is the kids themselves. They have to drive the car straight and make the track as short as possible. They need to keep their heads down and make the cars as aerodynamic as they can. This all comes from experience. The more races you run, the better your chances are of bringing home a win.
And for many lucky kids the ultimate prize is in Akron, the All-American Soap Box Derby Championship on a three lane wide track in front of thousands of fans in grandstands. This is the Daytona 500 for Soap Box Derby.
RACER BOY GAUGE
Let’s review the Racer Boy gauge cluster here:
FUEL (Cost): The fuel gauge is around three quarters of a tank. The cost of the car will set you back a bit but after that the racing is relatively inexpensive. You do have the cost of the entry fees and getting the car to the event. Some people have motor homes and car trailers, while others just bungee cord the soap box derby car to the roof of their Chevy Tahoe.
RPMs (Adrenaline): The tachometer is at 4,000 RPMs. Dads, your adrenaline will only get going about 2,000 RPMs while watching the kids go down the track, but the kid’s heart will be hitting 6,000 wile they’re driving. We’ll average out the two and call it 4,000.
MPH (Danger): The speedometer is at 30 miles an hour which is about as fast as these things go. This is a very safe event. More kids are hurt cheerleading every year than racing soap box derby cars.
VOLTS (Time): The volts gauge is around half because there is some time invested in building these cars and getting them to the event. You’ll spend hours in the garage getting that alignment just right.
MILEAGE (Car Wear): The mileage is at 100 miles because that is about all the miles you will put on your truck taking the soap box derby car to an event. The derby cars themselves last for years and years. However, check the AASBD site before an event because inevitably every year or so they require an update for the cars (probably won’t cost you more than $30 for the new part). All of the cars are required to be the same so you will need the latest updates.
Whether you are a gear head or a racer yourself, Soap Box Derby is a really fun thing to get involved in with your children. It teaches them how to use tools during the car construction, how to fine tune a car set up during the race, and the spirit of competition. It is absolutely a great bonding tool for parents and their children and it is totally fun and safe for the kids. See you at the bottom of the hill.
If you enjoy Rob Krider’s Racer Boy column then check out his novel “Cadet Blues” available in print or e-book at Amazon.