Soap Box Derby
Was Never More Popular Than It Was In The 1950’s and 1960’s
By Jack Coll
Editor’s Note: With the cancellation of the Conshohocken Annual Fourth of July Soap Box Derby due to the coronavirus I decided to dig deep into my Soap Box Derby files and provide a little history and perhaps a few memories for our Soap Box Derby fans everywhere.
This is the Second in a Series of Conshohocken Soap Box Derby Articles.
For Conshohocken Soap Box Derby everything changed in 1952, thanks in part to Edward and William Moore the local derby was now sanctioned by the national All American Soap Box derby Race located in Akron, Ohio. New rules and guide lines were put into place for all racers and their cars. Eddie Moore sponsored the race and William Moore was the General Chairman of not only the race but the entire Fourth of July festivities that lasted more than 13 hours.
Soap Box Derby was first up on the list of the day long events. Derby drivers met at 8:00 a.m. at the Washington Fire Company for the “Parade of Champions.” Leading the parade was Joseph P. Thomas, Chief of the Conshohocken Fire Department who served as Grand Marshall, he was accompanied by Edmund K. Williams, Burgess of Conshohocken and Harry F. Mosman, Burgess of West Conshohocken along with “Chuck Wagon Pete”, who was Pete Boyle.
“Chuck Wagon Pete, a former Conshohocken resident was a popular television star for many years and a famed Philadelphia commercial artist. Pete was dressed in his western attire familiar to his TV loving audiences. When the parade arrived at the home of William Moore, President of the Chamber of Commerce who lived at 708 Fayette Street, Pete signed hundreds of autographs and later addressed over the loud speaker the thousands of spectators viewing he race.
The parade line included a rainbow of colors that included Conshohocken Post 1074, Veterans of Foreign Wars, John F. DeHaven Post 129, Joseph Wagner Post 772, American Legion, Andrew Lannutti Post 18, Italian-American War Veterans, Walter Zurkowski Post 1, Marine Corps League, Firing Squad, Veterans of Foreign Wars; Band of Conshohocken, Directed by Joseph Pagliaro, Boy Scouts and Soap Box Derby entrants.
It was quite an event as the parade-line moved up Fayette Street to Seventh Avenue for the flag-raising ceremony on the lawn of the Conshohocken High school. A full concert was played by the Conshohocken band while the inspection of cars and weighing–in of the contestants were completed.
Chairs were set up all along the parade route and racing track by the Junior Chamber of Commerce and were rented at a nominal fee, all proceeds went toward expenses of the day’s celebration.
When the race was over John Kirkner, a 15 year old Upper Dublin Junior High School student had barely beat out Lowell Sibole, who lived in Conshohocken at the corner of West Tenth Avenue and Forrest Street. In 1952 boys from throughout Montgomery County were invited to race. Young Sibole lost the race to Kirkner by one full second, Lowell would take revenge the following year when he won the race and the right to race in Akron, Ohio.
Following the race there were sporting events held at the Community Field, (Conshohocken “A” Field) for boys and girls of all ages supervised by the Conshohocken Kiwanis Club. A baseball game played by the American Legion vs. the Conshohocken A’s followed the sporting events. The game was supervised by the Conshohocken Lions Club.
Then at 8:15p.m. the entire community gathered at the Conshohocken Community Field where they witnessed the awarding of prizes for Soap Box Derby Winners, and there were many categories for the winners, a play titled “Tomorrow’s Start Today,” and then the fireworks would start at 10 P.M. The evening program was under the supervision of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, Conshohocken Rotary Club and the Conshohocken Chamber of Commerce.
1952 was just a wonderful time to be alive and a resident of Conshohocken.
In 1953 more than 8,000 residents, parents and friends witnessed the Conshohocken Soap Box Derby Race along Fayette Street. Once again “Chuck Wagon Pete” led the parade of Champions to Seventh Avenue where flag ceremonies took place at Conshohocken High School. Lowell Sibole, winner in the “A” Division barely beat out runner-up Lloyd Laskey in the championship race. The final heat of the day was loud as more than 8,000 spectators got very vocal creating a lot of noise all along the race track. As the Conshohocken Recorder wrote-it:
“The race was a close one from the time the cars left the ramps to the time that they crossed the finish line. Lloyd Laskey, who lost out to Lowell by a nose remarked, “It was a fine race, and Lowell is a good driver.”
It was a banner year in 1953 as the Conshohocken Champ Lowell Sibole was flown in an airplane to Akron, Ohio accompanied by Edward Moore of E. F. Moore Chevrolet Agency and Art Polkowski, Derby News Chief of the Conshohocken Recorder. When the trio arrived in Akron, a number of police cars, motorcycles and official derby cars were waiting and transported them through the city to downtown Akron with screaming sirens blaring to the Mayflower Hotel where they would spend the first night.
In addition to Lowell visiting Akron for the race, thanks to William Moore all 50 Conshy Derby participants were treated to a round-trip to Akron to view the race thanks to donations collected by the Chamber of Commerce. They went to Akron by train, and it was noted that Conshohocken was the only race town in America to have all their derby participants in the grandstand to cheer on their champ.
Nearly four decades after the 1953 race I interviewed Lowell at his home in Chester Springs. Even after 40 years the first person he thanked for the time of his life was his father Ray. He also thanked his sponsor Sam Glass and Eddie Moore. “Whenever I had any questions while I was building my car those guys didn’t hesitate to help me out and point me in the right direction.” The drivers had a budget of $25.00 in 1953, and that’s all they were permitted to spend building their cars. Lowell noted, “We had a twenty five dollar spending limit on the cars back then and $12.50 went to the purchase of the wheels, and the other $12.50 went towards supplies, we scrimped and saved where we could.”
A little secret Lowell let me in on was that his dad was doing some pluming work at Bill Sharp’s Antique Store in Spring Mill. “We needed wood for the sides of the car when my Dad noticed some old airplane wings that were from a World War II bomber plane. It was Sitka spruce wood, and we used it for the sides of the car.” A funny note from my interview Lowell’s car was sponsored by Sam Glass and was called “The Blue Clipper,” but all champions cars were re-lettered for the Akron trip with the hometown newspaper name on the side of the car. In the Conshohocken case, all the early cars were lettered with “The Conshohocken Recorder” on the side or simply “The Recorder.”
So Lowell’s car gets re-lettered for the big trip. The car was created up by Lee Tires to be shipped to Akron, dozens of photographs were taken of Lowell and his car in Akron. Lowell was still in possession of the sides of his car that were made out of airplane wings and he displayed them for me. He said, “Do you notice anything about the sides of the car,” I looked them over and said no I don’t,” he said “Neither did anyone else.” There is a spelling error on one side of the car, where Conshohocken is spelled, “Conhohocken,” according to Lowell the error went undetected until a week before I interviewed him back in 1992. Lowell presented me with the side of his car, I often wondered why he gave me the side that was spelled wrong, but then again I’ve treasured the side of that car for the past 28 years.
If you would like to see the side of Lowell’s championship car, with Conshohocken spelled wrong, it will be displayed in our frame shop window at 324 Fayette Street the entire week of what would have been this year’s soap box derby and over the July 4th weekend, stop by and catch a glimpse of history.
Years later throughout the 1990’s I’d catch a glimpse of Lowell Sibole walking around the track, on the fourth of July. I’m sure some spectators might have recognized him and asked him what it was like to be champ from back in the day.
A few of the other participants in the 1953 derby race included Ludwig Kowalkowski, Jimmy Farrell, Thomas Sukalski, Pete Delliponti, Gene Hitchcock, Bob Calgagni, Wayne Clark, Tony Spineo, Buck Desinger, Joe Hannum, Alan Miller, Jack Schultz, James Hilbert, Danny Allerton, Harry Milakeve, Jimmy Smith, Joe Pilcicki, Pete Collins, Ed Moyer, Larry Custer, Art Perseo, Bobby Wood, John Heffentreyer, Matt Doughtery, Earl Watkins, Jimmy Burnett, Lloyd Laskey, Frank Giovanni, John Joiner, Frank Maziarz, Ron Keown, Jerry Ciffone, Bobby Garnet, Jack Wright, Billy Hanna, Frank Opelski, Tony Neve, Ron Pierce, Gernie Ciavarelli, Billy McVaugh, Francis Collins, Bobby Tompkins, Jim Neve, and Ralph Coscia. I’m sure I didn’t name everyone who raced in 1953 but these are the name I had in my files.
One final note from the 1953 July 4th celebration, more than 1,000 FREE popsicles were handed out to all the children attending the fireworks, if you were a kid back then, you couldn’t beat that with a stick!
In 1954 12 year old Jimmy Burnett of Barren Hill Road, Spring Mill headed to Akron, Ohio as the Conshohocken Champion. Burnett was very impressed when the United Airlines plane pulled into the Philadelphia Airport to give him a ride to the All American Derby race. For the second year in a row money was raised to transport and house all the Conshohocken Derby contestants in Akron to witness the All American Race. The kids got a big kick out of seeing Abbott and Costello among other celebrities at the race in 1954.
Lloyd Laskey had to settle for a second place finish in the 1953 and 1954 derby race, but in 1955 he beat more than 60 other competitors to finally earn the right to fly to Akron to compete in the All American Race. Young Laskey beat Joe Farrell, William McVaugh, Thomas Kijak, John Salmons and Bill Hanna to win the “B” Division. As Division “B” Champ he had to race against Division “A” Champ John Paul Brasher and Laskey prevailed. Lloyd’s father was an auto mechanic at Fleming’s Motors Inc., 601 East Hector Street at the time and two years later built a second winning car for his other son Robert.
Charles Caikoski was Conshohocken’s 1956 derby champion. Robert Laskey beat out 37 other contestants to win the 1957 championship race. Laskey in his Town Valet sponsored car beat Jackie Wright in round one, then beating Terry Sukalski in round two, followed with a victory over John Lebold. Laskey beat William Boyd in his Alan Wood Steel sponsored car in a close race with more than 10,000 spectators cheering them on.
There was no need to feel bad for John “Butch” Lebold as he won the following year in 1958. Lebold nosed out the runner-up 12 year old Tommy Carroll. A few of the other 41 racers in 1958 included Joe Neve, Brian Hanley, Ed Opelski, Michael DePalma, Michael Moore, Joe Sukalski, Paul Donovan, John Schank, Richard Garnett, Robert Cahill who beat David Stoy in a close race and Jesse Stemple just to name a few.
1959 was yet another big Fourth of July event starting with the parade of champions in the morning. The racers gathered at the Washington Fire House where they marched up Fayette Street to attend all the opening ceremonies at Conshohocken High School once located at Seventh Avenue and Fayette Street. Thirteen year old Tommy Carroll won the race in his Knights of Columbus sponsored car and earned the right to fly to Akron for the All American event. It was in Akron that young Carroll experienced a life changing moment when he was introduced to and shook hands with Vice President Richard M. Nixon. “I was amazed that a Vice President of the United States would show-up at Derbytown” expressed Carroll in an interview back in 1991. “The All American Race was known for bringing big name celebrities to the week-long event but a Vice President was something special,” said Carroll. Also appearing in Derbytown in 1959 was Art Carney and Jimmy Dean. A few of the other celebs from over the years included Dizzy and Daffey Dean of the St. Louis Cardinals back in 1947, James Stewart and Doolittle in 1948; (James Stewart appeared in Derbytown six times) Jack Dempsey, William Boyd, star of “Hopalong Cassidy,” Indy 500 winner Wilbur Shaw, 1950; From 1951-1959 Ronald Regan, Andy Divine, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Dinah Shore and husband George Montgomery, Don Ameche, Captain Video, and the Video Ranger, Abbott and Costello, Browns quarterback Otto Graham, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans just to name a few of the celebrities from the 1950’s decade.
In 1960, a kid who went on to become a beloved Chief of Police in this town, and we’ll pick that up in the next segment, until then, Thanks for the Memories!
Photographs above and below include:
1952: Outside E. F. Moore Chevrolet looking over the 1952 champion John Kirkner’s car as they prepared it for a trip to Akron, Ohio to participate in the All American Classic. Left to right include Edward Moore Jr., John Carotenuto, John Boorse and Charles Monette.
1952: When there were three wooden starting ramps, it was a one-and-done race, no double elimination. In 1952 there were no timers and no wheel swaps, a judge would stand at the finish line and call the winner.
1952: Soap Box Derby drivers gather before the race.
1952: The Grand Marshal of the pre-race parade was Uncle Pete, or “Chuck Wagon Pete”a well-known television star and artist. His full name was Pete Boyle who lived on Eleventh Avenue for a spell in the 1950’s. Many people remember his son Peter Boyle Jr. from “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
1952: Conshohocken Champion John Kirkner prepares his car in Akron on race day at the All American Derby Race track.
1952: A few of the cars sponsored by the Washing Fire Company and Ladies Auxiliary. Sitting in the cars from left included Jesse Stemple, sitting in a car that was driven by Allen Phipps of West Conshohocken, in the middle was Robert Garnett of Sixth Avenue and Danny Allerton of West Hector Street.
1953: Ed Moore shows off a Conshohocken winning smile while in Akron to see the Conshohocken Champ Lowell Sibole race.
1953: Racer line up before the start of the race, more than 50 boys competed in 1953, Lowell Sibole was the 1953 champ.
1953: The 1953 Conshohocken Parade of Champions marched from the Washington Fire House up Fayette Street to Seventh Avenue where opening ceremonies were held at the Conshohocken High school each year. Drivers can be seen turning onto Fayette Street from West Hector Street.
1953: 15 of the 53 racers competing in the race gathered for a group picture in front of E. F. Moore’s Chevrolet once located at Twelfth Avenue and Fayette Street. Standing in the back from left to right included Earl Watkins, Francis Collins, Francis Opelski, Tommy Sukalski, Lloyd Laskey, Tony Spineo, and Harry Milakeve. In the center row from left included was Jack Wright, Robert Wood, Nordie Hauk and Jimmie Hilbert. Racers posing in the front row included from left Jimmy Burnett, Jack Schultz, (Seated in racer) Jack Joiner, and Dick Pettit. Let’s not forget the dog “Luckey” the unofficial racing mascot.
1953: The three ramps in action.
1953: Lowell Sibol in his Blue Clipper race car crosses the finish line at Sixth Avenue beating the other racer by a car length.
1953: Lowell Sibole, 13, was awarded the official trophy by E. F. Moore, Chevrolet Dealer, and winner of the annual soap box derby back on July 4, 1953. Standing on the right looking on was William T. Moore, President of the Conshohocken Chamber of Commerce and Calvin Rigg, Director of Eastern Pennsylvania Greatest Amateur racing event in the world. William Moore had a lot to do with the early success of the Conshohocken derby.
1953: Conshohocken Champ Lowell Sibole prepares to take a practice run on the All American Track in Akron, Ohio.
1992: A visit with former Derby champion Lowell Sibole standing with his daughter Kate at his Chester Spring home in 1992 Lowell shows off some of his memorabilia from the 1953 race.
1954: The 1954 Conshohocken Soap Box Derby Champion Jimmy Burnett.
1955: Conshohocken Champion Lloyd Laskey checks into Akron Ohio for the National Derby Race back in 1955.
1957: Bob Cahill poses in his car for a photograph in his 1957 race car. Cahill who raced in 1957, 58 and 1959 would later claim that his biggest thrill was winning a heat in 1958, which won him a flashlight, and ice cream maker for his victory, everybody gets 15 seconds, I hope you enjoyed yours Bob.
1959: Tommy Carroll poses in his winning race car “Slo-mo-shun” back in 1959 following his big victory.
1959: With his suitcase packed for Akron, Ohio Tommy says goodbye to his dog before leaving for Ohio.
1959: Tommy Carroll is all smiles as he receives his winning Chevrolet Trophy presented to him by, from left Bill Moore, Joe Bowe, Ed Moore, and the 1958 Conshohocken champ John Lebold.