SOAP BOX DERBY
INTERNATIONAL RACE IN AKRON OHIO
WINNERS AND CHEATERS
By Jack Coll
July 2, 2018
Six or seven years ago Chris Nasielski, (who had a second place finish in the Conshohocken Soap Box Derby race in 1979, Phyllis Rodenbaugh was one of three Conshohocken females champions in the 1970’s and beat Chris in a very close race that year), well Chris gave me a book on soap box derby written by Melanie Payne called “All American, Champions, Cheaters, and Childhood Dreams.”
I didn’t have a lot of interest in a book that covered kids from all over America racing in Akron, Ohio but after opening the book a couple of things caught my eye. As the title implies there was a little something about soap box derby cheaters. I was interested because years ago when HBO (Home Box Office) was still a novelty they would run a program every once in–a-while called “Top Ten Greatest Scandal’s.” One of the scandals on the show pertained to Soap Box Derby about “The Magnetic Nose.”
So I opened this book up that Chris gave me, (or loaned me?) and sure enough under chapter seven was “The Magnetic Nose.” So with the understanding that Melanie Payne wrote this book I’ll give you a few highlights from the chapter “The Magnetic Nose.”
Many soap box derby fans over the years believed Chevrolet, who provided the annual $1.4 million budget for the National race dropped their sponsorship because of the 1973 magnet scandal, that would be false. Chevrolet pulled out of the race in 1972, a year before the scandal, although Chevrolet did provide the 1973 scholarship fund. They may have pulled out at that time for another reason that was speculated on and we’ll get back to that later.
In 1973, Jimmy Gronen was the Soap Box Derby champ from Boulder, Colorado. It was the year that Dennis Donovan was the Conshohocken Champion. Some folks in the inner soap box derby circles claimed, and knew of cheating going on but it was never reveled or made public due to the fear of losing sponsorship’s.
Over the years champions who attempted to cheat were simply sent home, and it had been long-know that illegal home-made axles were in use. According to Payne, in her book she stated that:
“There had been complaints that the official derby axel that all racers were required to use was made of metal too weak to support the weight of the car. So a number of racers that year had axles that looked like the official derby axle but were made of a stronger metal.
When the counterfeit axles were discovered, race officials opted not to disqualify these races by stamping a trademark into the axles, believing this would alleviate the problems of counterfeits.
Officials may have thought that the All-American Soap Box Derby would suffer a tarnished image if they had sent home nearly thirty racers—almost a quarter of the field—with illegal axles. They also undoubtedly believed that the resulting bad press would have thwarted efforts to get a replacement sponsor for Chevrolet. Bob Troyer, the derby’s public relations man, said that the intention that year was to showcase the race in order to attract a new sponsor.
Had derby officials made the decision to disqualify those racers with counterfeit axles, Jimmy Gronen, among them, the race could have avoided a much greater cheating scandal that tarnished the image of the derby forever.
The 138 local race winners included nineteen girls, champs from Venezuela, Germany, and Canada, and James Gronen, a fourteen year-old champion from Boulder, Colorado, and cousin of the 1972 national winner Robert Lange Jr.”
Payne goes on to say that Gronen and Lange had a close relationship because they lived together. Derby fans and officials had their suspicions of Lang the year before when Lange won the national derby in 1972 claiming that Lange’s car was just too fast on the track but officials couldn’t prove any wrong-doing or cheating. Derby officials and directors at the time wanted to inspect Lange’s car after the race but the car had been quickly transported out of Akron before anyone could get a good look at it.
So when Gronen showed up in Akron in 1973 with a car from Boulder, Colorado that looked exactly like the 1972 car from Boulder driven by Lange, it attracted attention by more than a few officials.
It’s typical on race day in Akron that the day goes on the track heats up and the rubber on the tires or wheels and blacktop expand and the cars typically record faster times going down the track. However as the day went on Gronen’s times became slower and slower which was very unusual.
When Gronen’s car crossed the finish-line as world champion there were boos from the crowd. Payne stated in her book that many of the fans and officials challenged the result, claiming that they had seen Gronen’s car inexplicably lurch rather than coast forward as the starting gate dropped.
Following the annual Saturday night All American Banquet derby officials began to examine Gronen’s car. During the inspection a small button was found in the headrest. When officials removed the button, they discovered the button was attached to wires. The car was taken to the Goodyear Company grounds for X-rays and the X-rays discovered metal in the nose of the car with the wires attached to the headrest and a secret switch found in the dash.
The X-rays revealed a battery and the magnet. When the racers were guided to the starting ramp they were place against a metal flap that came up vertically out of the ground in each lane. (Three lanes across) The metal flap would drop into the ground to start the race allowing the cars to coast forward and make their way down the hill. When Gronen was lowered onto the metal gate he would lean his head back in the helmet-rest and activate the battery, located in the back of the car sending a current to the magnet in the front of the car. When the metal gate dropped it would pull Gronen’s car forward propelling the car out of the starting gate and down the hill. Once on the hill Gronen would lift his head off the button disconnecting the current from the battery to the magnet in an effort to conserve the energy in the battery.
Derby officials called a press conference and showed and explained the magnet car. Once the cheating was exposed news organizations throughout the country accused the derby of being a corrupt organization. It was noted that the 1973 Soap Box Derby Race would go down in history as the most memorable race ever.
The builder of the car Bob Lange Sr., Gronen’s uncle admitted to building the magnet car and stated in a 1974 interview with Harper’s Magazine that he did not originate the idea of the magnetic nose. Lange claimed that the magnetic system in soap box derby cars had been in use for many years while youngsters cheated their way to victory in soap box derby races around the country. A magnetic system was in use as early as 1967 when a local race discovered the magnet nose during an inspection, disabled the magnet and allowed the boy to race.
Once Gronen was disqualified the derby moved each finisher up a notch. In the end the second place finisher Bret Yarborough of Elk Grove, California was named the winner.
Some derby officials later said they wished the derby had never exposed the magnet car. Sponsorships were hard to come-by following 1973. Other officials noted that they never considered not exposing even though they knew the devastating results it would have on the program.
The cheating not only tainted the 1973 race and beyond, but some questioned the 1972 winner Bobby Lange, Gronen’s cousin, who some said used the same car as his cousin.
Akron Ohio’s All American Race has rebounded in recent years, and officials today make sure of a good clean honest race.
According to author Melanie Payne, That’s the way it was forty five years ago!
By the way it was good to sit and chat with former Conshohocken now Kentucky resident Chris Nesielski on Monday July 2, Chris visited the shop for a spell. We sat and reminisced, talked about the race and his derby dad Whitey, and knee replacements, man is it fun getting old.