Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Ambridge Soap Box Derby

Twin Trailer entry,
Ambridge Soap Box Derby, 1960

A note on the back of the photo says:
Twin. Trial Day. This was a few days before the final day. We called the final day "D" day. You either have it or you come back and try again next year.*

Since the Western Pennsylvania Soap Box Derby Fun Run is being held on 14th Street today, and the Derby will be held there on June 7, it seemed like a great time to post some photos of the 1960 Derby. 

Ambridge held its first Soap Box Derby in the mid-1950s--so far, I've been unable to find the year, so if you know, leave a comment.

Ambridge Soap Box Derby parade, 1960
500 block of Merchant Street at 6th Street corner

Note on reverse:
This is the parade for the soapbox derby. I [Walter Kasper] was parade chairman. The parade came down Merchant St. to Eighth St. Up 8th St to Duss Ave. This is were [sic] the races started.

Behind the parade car are G.C. Murphy, Father & Son shoe store, and S&S Shoes. Streetcar tracks are still visible on Merchant Street.

Ambridge Soap Box Derby, 1960

Note on reverse:
Jack Dunn and I [Walter Kasper]. Soap Box Derby. July 4, 1960. Picture taken 3rd & Merchant.

The races were big events back then. Organizers held a kick-off event with refreshments where racers could register. Before the race, there was a parade--and not a tiny one. In 1974, 64 units were expected to march in the parade which began at First and Merchant Streets and ended at the old high school on Duss Avenue.

On race day, thousands of spectators would turn out to watch the cars roll down 8th Street and cheer the racers on. 

Kasper Funeral Home entry,
Ambridge Soap Box Derby, 1960

Note on reverse:
Richard Gutowski and I [Walter Kasper]. 1960. Soap Box Derby. This was my 2nd Entry in the Annual Soap Box Derby. Richard was a semifinal winner.

"The Flying Coffin,"
McCabe Funeral Home entry,
Ambridge Soap Box Derby, 1960

note on reverse:
The Ed McCabe Funeral Home entry (The Flying Coffin)
This is just trial runs, so the boys can see how their car operates. From here they make minor adjustments.
1. Sam Piccinini
2. Walter Panek (Mayor of Ambridge)
3. Walt Kasper ramp boss
4. Made the Ramp
Car did not win the derby.

Ambridge Soap Box Derby, 1960 **

note on reverse:
This is the starting ramp of the contestants who are participating in the soap box derby. The starter has just given the release for the two cars on the ramp. I [Walter Kasper} am looking down to the finish line.**

Back then, the racers--boys only until 1972 ***--would build cars of their own design and materials, so the race was not only a test of driving skills, but also engineering, as well as the wallets of the racers' parents or sponsors.

Enthusiasm for the event seemed high through the early '70s, although even in 1972, the derby director, Fred Loedding, warned that if Ambridge didn't register at least 50 racers, it would lose its franchise. Still, the Derby Committee had plans to build a permanent track in Economy Park. 

But then, interest of the boys and girls, as well as sponsors, fizzled.

The last year the "Ambridge Area Soap Box Derby" was held was 1975. Local interest had waned. Beaver Falls and Ellwood City discontinued their derbies, so instead, the "Beaver County Soap Box Derby" for racers from all of Beaver County as well as Allegheny and Lawrence Counties, was held in Center Township.

In 2009, through the efforts of Tom Patrician, a member and former president of the Ambridge Area Chamber of Commerce who fondly remembered the derbies of his youth, soap box derby racing came back to Ambridge.


* Although all the photos in this article are courtesy of Bob Mikush, the current owner, the notes on the photos appear to have been made by the late Walter R. Kasper, then the owner of the Kasper Funeral Home at 547 Eighth Street, now Kasper-Hahn Funeral & Cremation Service. All photos are used with permission.

** Note the Gabor Electric building which once stood on the southeast corner of 8th Street and Duss Avenue. The lot now appears to be used as a yard for the house on its right.

*** Girls competed in the national soapbox derby for the first time in 1971. I'm sure that race organizers had a perfectly rational reason why only boys could race before 1971, I just can't figure out what that reason might have been. Were girls incapable of building a car before '71? Were girls unable to steer a racer until '71? Was racing unsafe for girls before '71? Did girls suddenly develop an interest in the derby in '71? Or was racing one more thing girls weren't allowed to do because [insert not-a-good reason here.] 

I note with satisfaction that once girls were allowed to participate, girls started winning races at both the local and national levels.

1 comment:

  1. jd aka john domansky

    my only comment is about the 2 shoe stores in the top photo, father & son & s&s ?? on the corner,one of them offered xray of your foot for shoe size & whatever, it showed your foot bones in ur shoe & the size & width u needed, used to go there just to get xrayed. how cool!!!

    as for girls not being capable for derby racing & other sports, that is a bunch of hooey!! many girls are on equal footing w/a lot of boys, softball for girls is a great watch, little league baseball was justing getting girls in the boys teams, in the early 70s they had their own fields & leagues in our town & were joy to watch, i umped over 10 years LL BR once at a babe ruth ill state tournament,

    after watching the hockey finals NHL, thats where the true sportsmanship is at today. & the chicago fans & team showed that in the final series & win. son has a pic of him & bobby hull 1970s early.