My first experience making something large and relatively complex was during my five years of participation in the All-American Soap Box Derby, from 1964 to 1968 (age 11 to 15). My father had taught me the use of tools at a very young age, but building a high-quality Soap Box Derby car required a new set of skills including:
- Finding a local business to sponsor me
- Budgeting and tracking my expenses for reimbursement
- Designing within the constraints of the rules (see rule books below)
- Project management and sticking with the project over a couple months
- Sourcing parts
- Learning how to use many new tools
- Learning new construction techniques (drilling and tapping, automotive body work and painting, fiberglass)
Participants purchased a kit consisting of two axles, four wheels, and a steering wheel. All other parts were the responsibility of the participant. One of the rules was that we were to build our own cars; parents were supposed to be hands off. The contest was only for boys when I participated (girls were invited to participate shortly after I competed).
Chevrolet was the national sponsor of the All-American Soap Box Derby. Because the county I lived in had two large General Motors facilities (Packard Electric and the Lordstown Assembly Plant), the Derby was a very big deal. For my second year the local sponsors unveiled a replica of Derby Downs, the national championship track in Akron, Ohio. Cars were gravity propelled as we raced down the 989-foot track, reaching speeds around 30 miles per hour.
My dad became one of the top volunteers, running the multi-week clinic that taught kids how to design and build their cars. The program that he put together was so good that he was featured in the national Clinic Guide for 1968 (he, my brother, and I all appeared in the photos). One year he and the assistant clinic director built cars to compete with each other on race day for the Oil Can trophy. Dad won!
Unfortunately, there was a lot of cheating. Some parents built the cars for their kids. Later I learned that others were rebuilding wheel bearings, which was strictly prohibited. My parents taught me to play by the rules, and I did. They considered learning to deal with dishonesty to be part of growing up. I acquired a tremendous number of skills from my participation that are valuable to this day. Cheaters had glory for a day and learned little or nothing.
I have a couple folders full of Derby rulebooks and brochures from the 1960s, so I decided to scan and post them for historical purposes.