The Soap Box Derby was marred by magnetic scandal in 1973

Gravity and ingenuity. That’s what you have to work with if you want to win a Soap Box Derby race. And people have been doing this for decades now. Akron, Ohio has been the home of the Soap Box Derby World Championships since 1935. But it all almost faded away after the event held in 1973. This was an event marred by a winner that was discovered to be cheating.

Racer Jimmy Gronen was beating up on the other kids around him. The lightweight 14-year-old had a car with massive margins of victory. According to Wikipedia, the average heat race at the time was decided by a victory margin of between one to three feet. Gronen was making it to the finish line with a gap of between 20 to 30 feet. That’s massive. How did he do it?

His uncle (and legal guardian) had constructed an electromagnetic system by which to gain an advantage. The starting block uses a metal lever that falls away to release the cars. Gronen’s car used a magnet to provide an initial pull as the metal pole fell away. It’s brilliant, really. But it’s also against the rules. The winning car was x-rayed as competitors cried foul. Once the system was discovered, Gronen was stripped of the title and the second-place finished was declared champion for that year.

It seems like Gronen’s uncle could’ve had a career in motorsport if he wasn’t already a wealthy engineer. Somewhere, Smokey Yunick is wiping away a happy tear. And if this wasn’t an event for children, we might nod and smile as well.

12 Comments

  1. 1973 was also a terrible year for the Indy 500 (three days, three funerals), as memorialized in this drag-punk blitz by The Demonics, “RIP STP”
    Fans of Soapbox Racing will recognize The Demonics as the headlining band at the annual Halloween SFISS pre-race blowout.
    Fans of skateboarding will recognize this fish-eyed slice of 20th century freestyling, which has nothing to do with motorsports, from watching Thrasher videos in the ’80s.

  2. I absolutely LOVE the voice-overs of these 60’s/70’s sports pieces. That John Facenda type of narration – we need more of that. No yelling, no hyperbole, just pure poetry. This Polaris promo video is another one that’s just incredible to listen to

    1. I don’t know about you, but the voicover on the Derby video made me think the A-Team music was going to kick in at any minute.

    2. I agree wholeheartedly and I guess everyone has their favourite here. This one, to me, is a classic – “you can’t rush it” is such a wonderful phrase paired with this content:

          1. It’s worth the watch. PBS used to show the whole thing during pledge drives, and I’ve seen it more than once. Dick Proenneke is a legend. A year-long experiment to test his mettle in the wilderness turned into 30 years living alone in a cabin he built himself.

        1. I didn’t expect to watch the whole thing, but here I am. I have an irrational thought that building a log cabin would be fun. Then I remember that my body aches for a whole day just doing an oil change.

          1. Not irrational at all– I think it would be very satisfying work. But exhausting, no doubt!

    3. That voice is incredibly soothing, but I do not think that people smoke enough cigarettes anymore to get that kind of respectful rasp.

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