The world's first Soap Box Derby started in Ohio in 1934. The Saranac Lake Daffest Derby came considerably later, in 2010. But the basics have not changed. Unpowered cars are launched down a ramp and rely on gravity for their speed.
This event is a real crowd-pleaser, and has become an extraordinary part of our Daffest celebrations every spring.
To get the lowdown on this new-to-us tradition, I interviewed "Derby Bob."
Despite having so much to do with the event over the years, his first answer was a confession:
I must admit this event was not my "brain child." But when the event organizer mentioned it to me, I jumped on it! This has become one of my favorite days of the year.
I said that one of the things about the Derby I loved was the wide variety of contestants. There are four different divisions that allow almost anyone to participate — the person just has to find the right car.
These four classes compete against each other; the five to eight year olds, the nine to twelve year olds, the thirteen to fifteen year olds, and then the sixteen and older "Anything Goes!" class. Also, unlike the earlier derbies which started during the Great Depression, boys and girls (and grownup boys and girls) are all welcome at the Daffest Derby.
One of the things that we were hoping to encourage was kids and their parents, grandparents, friends or whoever, to build cars and race them. That has happened big time.
Anyone who comes to a race can just look at the variety of cars we get. It is amazing.
We had one built out of a wooden pallet, they've made them out of a canoe and a shorty kayak, or made them look like a Spencer built boat. We had a local carpenter make a little fire truck. There's a gentleman from Lake Placid that built a car for the kids in his neighborhood.
The specs for a Daffest Derby car are these:
- Overall length no longer than 90"
- Front (nose) to wheel can't be longer than 23"
- Front of car no lower than 4" or higher than 6"
- Max weight of empty car is 80 lbs
- No car can be wider than 36"
- Wheels no larger than 12" for 3 lower classes (non pneumatic tires)
In addition, all the cars have to be steerable and have some type of brakes. This means the steering and brakes must be able to be used at same time. For safety reasons, a car will be disallowed if the driver needs to let go of the steering to work the brakes.
Derby Bob started early:
When I was a kid my friends and I would build what we called Go-Karts which were just lawn mower wheels nailed to the end of a 2X4, and the 2x4 nailed to a couple of boards. We would race each other down any hill we could find. It was so much fun.
All the needed terrain was right there in Saranac Lake, on the slope of Route 3 as it climbs leaving town to the west. We close a section of the road, line the course with hay bales, and we are ready to Derby!
Every year something happens, either leading up to the Derby, or on the day of the Derby, that I will hold as a memory.
The first year when I was searching for some way to time the runs, I checked with the Local Ski Club, then with Whiteface Mountain. They sent me to Reliable Racing in Glens Falls to see if they rented their timing equipment. So I called the number that was given me, and as I was explaining what we were looking to do, the guy on the other end of the phone says, "Where in Saranac Lake are you going to hold this race?"
I said, "From the overpass down the highway to the town hall. Do you know Saranac Lake?"
"Yes," he said. "I grew up there."
I said, "Who am I talking to?"
"Gerry Trudell," he said.
"Hey! We graduated together." I introduced myself and we realized we had been friends when we were in school.
So now every year Gerry volunteers his time to come up. He runs our timing and keeps track of all the kids' racing times.
This is such an Adirondack story.
With "inclusiveness" as one of its guidelines, the Daffest Derby always has variety.
Then there was the year that one racer had a parachute on his car. That was cool. We had two girls come down from Massena area with true soap box derby cars lke the ones they race in Akron, Ohio. That was neat and now we've got several of those.
There are always cars in the race that local people have bought and assembled with their kids and grandkids. There's a whole team behind so many racers.
More amusing stories followed, indicating how, every year, more people become part of the vital preparations as well as race day itself.
The second or third year Jay Annis from Spencer Boat Works just wanted to watch the race. Well, he wound up repairing cars all day long! I don't think he saw a single race.
Bob Scheefer and his crew help every year. They built the launch ramp and the stairs. Bob is the official starter. He makes sure that every kid can control their car and that the cars are set to race.
It's such a community effort to pull this off. The Kiwanas Club helps corral cars to the start and cycles them back to the top of the hill. Last year the fire department contacted us and wanted to help, and that was great.
It ran so smoothly last year we started late and finished early. When we started I think we had three trucks and a trailer to get the cars back up to the start. Last year there must have be six or eight of them. We never ran out of cars at the top of the hill!
I asked him how visitors can best enjoy the festivities.
The only thing i can say about enjoying the race is to just show up. It's so nice to hear the kids cheering on their friends, lining the overpass and the sides of the road, having fun, with everybody smiling.
To see the course set up and lined with spectators from the top of the hill to the bottom is very satisfying to me and all of our volunteers.
A few years ago a couple was just driving through town and saw the race. They stopped and watched that year, and came back the next year, with their grandkids.
"Everybody is a winner," I said with a smile.
"Derby Bob" agreed with me.