An Oldie Is New Again: High-Tech Soap Box Racing Since 1934, people have competed in the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio. But in the past six years, a special race has allowed some competitors to showcase high-tech cars. Organizers hope this new angle to soap box racing will help reinvigorate the graying pastime.
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An Oldie Is New Again: High-Tech Soap Box Racing

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An Oldie Is New Again: High-Tech Soap Box Racing

An Oldie Is New Again: High-Tech Soap Box Racing

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The all-American Soap Box Derby has been around since 1934. The race is held in Akron, Ohio, and it still requires all the cars to be homemade and propelled only by gravity. But it's been a long time since the racers were made out of anything like soap boxes. In fact, these days, part of the derby is set aside for high-tech cars, and they are very high-tech.

Tim Rudell of member station WKSU reports.

(Soundbite of machine shop)

TIM RUDELL: Computer-guided milling at a precision machine shop in Sharon, Pennsylvania, cuts high-tensile titanium bushings to within hundredths of an inch.

(Soundbite of milling)

RUDELL: And if they're milled exactly right, the bushings do their silent work smoothing the roll of alloy wheels on a world-record gravity racer flashing through a test run at Derby Downs. This is not your grandfather's soap box derby car.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #1: Construction gets under way for the coming 1935 all-American Soap Box Derby. An old baby buggy complete with wheels, supplies the most important part of the Megan(ph). Rubber tires and everything. This will probably turn out to be an innovation in motorcar design.

RUDELL: To encourage innovation in this new century, derby organizers created an open-class competition in 2004 called Ultimate Speed Challenge. All but basic size, weight and safety rules are set aside. Drivers are older, up to 20. Teams with crew chiefs are involved. The result: missile-like racers with speeds approaching 40 miles an hour.

Derek Fitzgerald of Sharon, Pennsylvania is an Ultimate Speed crew chief who uses high-tech design help like wind-tunnel testing.

Mr. DEREK FITZGERALD (Crew Chief, Ultimate Speed Challenge): Texas A&M gave us their tunnel over New Year's for free and we all drove to Texas A&M, tested all of our cars, took coefficients, found out a couple of unique things that we tested. And then, in the end, we published all the data.

RUDELL: Fitzgerald heads a precision-tool making company. He helped his daughters win regular derby crowns in the '90s and is helping friend Dave Berndt's daughter, Jamie. He says he's seen some derby-tech breakthroughs show up elsewhere.

Mr. FITZGERALD: I met some Carnegie Mellon guys. I have this facility to do the billet rims, to build molds, to do all kinds of stuff and we started investigating rubber. And the result was we built the least-rolling-resistance rubber wheel in the world. And last year we came out, broke the record and won.

RUDELL: Low-friction compounds have been tested on derby cars by Goodyear. And tires with low-resistance technology are now coming into use worldwide.

(Soundbite of derby car)

RUDELL: Jamie Berndt is ready for another test run. She wiggles into the tiny fuselage. Its gleaming lacquer looks like roiling fire at the nose, tapering to the color of wine at the fin-shaped tail. As her crew makes final adjustments, she and her father, Dave Berndt, discuss why they've built derby cars for nearly a decade.

Ms. JAMIE BERNDT: It's just something really fun to do. I mean, I've done it with my dad and, like, my mom, and I've met, like, a lot of people that I still, like, talk to.

Mr. DAVE BERNDT: The bonus is that she has gotten scholarships from the regular derby. And they gave a scholarship on this last year.

(Soundbite of derby car test run)

Unidentified Man #2: Okay, on three. One, two, three.

(Soundbite of derby car)

RUDELL: Recapturing youthful enthusiasm may be critical for the derby. Even before corporate support collapsed with the economy, it was graying. Organizers hope a turn toward high-tech will spur inventiveness, competitiveness and maybe just help make the old derby young again.

For NPR News, I'm Tim Rudell in Akron.

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