July 31, 2013
LIMA — A decade had passed since Warren Hodosko won Lima’s second Soap Box Derby on a July day in 1937 so hot gravel had to be spread on the tar bubbling from the Faurot Park course. More than 10,000 people turned out to watch the race.
Then, in May 1938, it was announced there would be no Soap Box Derby that year. There was no race the next year either, or the next, until, eventually, World War II put an end to it.
The return of peace and prosperity also brought the return of the Soap Box Derby. On Jan. 15, 1947, The Lima News announced it would sponsor the race with Minnick Chevrolet as co-sponsor and with a lot of help from the Lima Jaycees. Every entrant would receive a prize, The News promised in a May 22, 1947, story, with bicycles going to each division winner — 11- and 12-year-olds and 13- to 15-year-olds.
In addition, on July 13, 1947, the paper reported, “Lima’s Soap Box Derby Champion will be taken to the International finals at Akron next month on a Lima-made locomotive ….” Price of the ticket was $7.50 and included a seat at the race.
With 15,000 spectators looking on, Tommy Barnes, 12, won the train ride to Akron along with all the Lima entrants.
The 1948 Derby was won by another 12-year-old, Howard Steiner, who had a sore throat and stomach problems on race day. According to a July 26, 1948, News article, Steiner was so sick leading up to the race that his brother, Sam, had to test his car and pick up his race helmet.
Sam Steiner’s good deed was rewarded July 21, 1952, when he won. “Like many another racer, Sam Steiner, the 1952 Lima Soap Box Derby champion, carries something for good luck,” The News wrote. “And Sunday he was carrying nine silver dollars, which were part of the 18 his brother Howard Jr., carried in his wallet back in 1948 when he won the city championship and one heat in the national Derby in Akron.”
Sam Steiner was relying on more than luck at Akron, telling The News he rubbed down his dark blue car with fine sandpaper. “A wax finish on a jet plane will slow it as much as 40 miles an hour,” Steiner explained. “It might slow my car some, too.” Even the car’s color was chosen with speed in mind. Darker colored cars, Steiner said, rolled faster during the heat of the Akron afternoon. He finished ninth at the national Derby.
Thirteen-year-old Jere Courtney beat out 112 competitors in 1953, carrying two of the nine silver dollars Sam Steiner carried in 1952. Bill Folland won the 1954 race in a car built with Courtney’s help.
The 1958 Derby final saw brothers square off for the title, with 14-year-old Jerry Schroeder nipping 12-year-old Jim for top spot. “I was really hoping for Jerry,” the boys’ mother Carolyn told the News July 28, 1958. “He had built a car every year for five years and really tried to win. Every year he slept near his car the night before the race.”
Again, as in 1938, the Lima Soap Box Derby came to a halt. “Rising costs each year, coupled with lower participation in the event by all concerned has prompted this action,” the sponsors announced Feb. 15, 1959. The Derby would not return to Lima until 1965, this time with White Chevrolet and the Lima Jaycees sponsoring the race. Jeff Moor, a Jaycee and winner of the 1957 race, was named director.
Elida’s Bill Jackson, 11, beat his 13-year-old brother, Gary, by three car lengths to win the championship, the News reported July 19, 1965. In 1966, Moor’s brother, John, joined him as a Lima champion.
Fourteen-year-old Jim Hefner won the 1968 Lima race wearing pink girls’ house slippers. “I used the same racer I entered last year and modified it,” Hefner told the News July 22, 1968. “When I tried to get into it I discovered I had grown since last year and my shoes wouldn’t fit into the car. So I borrowed the slippers from one of my sisters. I think they brought me good luck.”
On Aug. 15, 1971, Lima had its highest finish in Akron. Jim Jackson, 11, the brother of 1970 Lima winner Danny and 1965 Lima winner Bill, came in second to a racer from Oroville, Calif.
Girls were allowed to compete for the first time in 1971. Lima’s first female competitor was Kelli Fairburn, 12, from Shawnee, who entered the 1972 Derby. Eventually, seven girls would join 36 boys in the 1972 race.
Fairburn was the only girl to make it to the second heat. That year’s winner, Dale Mathew, 12, said he was never concerned about the female competitors. “They didn’t drive so straight in the trials, so I didn’t worry,” Mathew told The News July 10, 1972.
The girls were driving straight by 1979 when Brenda Marsteller became the first girl to win the Lima race, taking first in the stock division.
Scandal rocked the national Soap Box Derby in 1973. That year’s winner was stripped of his crown, charged with using an “electromagnetic” motor with a helmet-activated switch to launch him down the course when the metal starting gate holding the racers in place fell backward at the start.
In the wake of the scandal and dwindling participation, the Derby again foundered. On Feb. 4, 1974, Lima Derby Director Eugene Hefner announced the Lima race would begin accepting racers from adjacent counties. By 1987, the local race had recovered and was again one of the largest in the nation.
On June 23, 1995, Derby officials announced the race would be divided into three divisions: Stock, in which the car is built from a kit; Super Stock, in which the car is built from a kit but allows for heavier drivers; and Masters, in which participants build their cars from scratch.
Unchanged over the years has been the Lima Soap Box Derby’s focus on family, extended family, generations of family: Hefners, Jacksons, Twinings, Siefkers, Marstellers, Offenbachers …
In 2003, Brandon Miller won the stock division while his father, Craig, kept his mother, Renee, herself a former Derby racer, updated on his progress. Brandon’s sister Brooke was born the day before his win. Brooke, now 10, competed in the Stock division of the 2013 Derby on June 22. Her older sister, Taylor, 14, won the Super Stock division and finished fourth at Akron on Saturday.