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The Luminary goes to the races

By Staff | Jul 13, 2010

The Shopper-Luminary car, no.18, races through the finish line at the corner of Market and Dubois Streets at the Soap Box Derby held July 3.

WILLIAMSPORT – What excitement filled the air as the city of Williamsport revived the Soap Box Derby race on a beautiful Saturday for the first time in 56 years for hundreds of spectators. The last race held here was in 1956. Each year before that during the 1940’s, young boys would race their hand made cars from wooden soap box containers down Market Street after spending countless hours constructing them with their father or another family member. It grew into such a huge tradition all over the country, and it wasn’t long before the event became sanctioned with rules and guidelines by the All American Soap Box Derby.

In fact it’s been called “The Greatest Amateur Racing Event in the World”. “The Gravity Grand Prix”, and many other expansive euphemisms-but to most of the more than a million youngsters who’ve participated, it’s just the “Soap Box Derby.” And a “Soap Box Derby” it was christened back in 1933, when a Dayton (Ohio) Daily News Photographer encountered three boys racing home-made, engine-less cars down an inclined brick street. The first international championship was held in Akron, Ohio where to this day, all finalists will compete.

During opening ceremonies, Soap Box Derby director, Dr. Jim Campbell was introduced by Mayor Campana and was pleased to see the race return to the exact location when it ran from 1940 to 1954. “This event is all about kids,” he said and the Mayor was grateful to the Sun-Gazette for their sponsorship and for all of the publicity and advertising they gave for this resurrected momentous happening.

The Luminary and Shopper had a stock car this year, number 18, in the official race and was driven by Jane Mertes, age 15, daughter of Ed and Tracy Mertes from Williamsport. She won her first race but was eliminated after the second race for the championship. The Luminary-Shopper car raced approximately 10:30 a.m. against Sanso Concrete. There were a total of 53 cars in the derby with two age divisions. The cars were built from kits supplied by Penn College and owned by the Williamsport Soap Box Derby Association. Participating racers were able to practice on Saturday at Market Street between Washington and Little League Boulevards. Many businesses helped to sponsor the various cars and signs were made by Lou Miele.

Area residents enjoyed spending the day and taking photos. Dennis Crapser from Montgomery said he came to take plenty of pictures and has a keen interest in the soap box derby and the memorabilia. Jeff Bower from Hughesville came with his grandson, Ethan Burns, a student at Ashkar. “It is really interesting to me that 7 year olds can do this,” said Ethan, “and be able to race these cars by themselves down the hill.” The cars averaged about 25 to 35 miles an hour down the hill. In the old days they used to race 55 miles an hour recalls Robert Cotner, a city native.

Like other surviving Soap Box racers of his generation, he also recalls spending hours constructing his racers. Each year he tried to improve it and make it move a little faster and look a little fancier. Many started out by using baby carriage wheels before they got official Soap Box Derby wheels. Rules are stricter now and followed by inspection crews and volunteers. For example, the wheel rims have to be 12 inches and covered with a half inch of rubber.

The overall winners will go to the national championship in Akron, Ohio on July 24.