The All American Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio, wraps up a week of activities on Saturday with the annual Soap Box Derby race. In the 1930s, the winner of Raleigh’s soap box derby was front-page news. Sponsored by The News & Observer and Sir Walter Chevrolet, the derby ran right down Glenwood Avenue.
Fourteen-year-old Hal Thompson led a field of 54 racers here yesterday afternoon to win the coveted 1938 Soap Box Derby championship for Raleigh and a free trip to the national finals at Akron, Ohio.
He is the brother of 10-year-old Wiley Thompson, who won the Derby here last year by nosing out Hal by just three inches. They are the sons of Mr. and Mrs. J. Marvin Thompson of 400 Kimsey Street.
Before more than 6,000 cheering spectators, the Class A champion sped across the finish stripe fully three lengths ahead of Joe Mack McLaurin of Rockingham, Class B winner. Running wheel-to-wheel over half the course, the winner broke away in the home stretch to duplicate his younger brother’s feat of last year.
The winning time was 34 seconds flat, a new record for the 900-foot course on Glenwood Avenue between Cole Street and Williamson Drive.
Thompson was awarded the Coyle trophy as city champion and a gold medal as Class A winner. McLaurin won a bicycle as city runner-up and the Class B gold medal for first place.
The News and Observer and Sir Walter Chevrolet Company, co-sponsors of the annual amateur racing classic, will send the champion to Akron August 14 to compete with champions from more than 200 cities in the United States and three foreign countries. National first prize will be a $2,000 scholarship to any university in the United States, and Chevrolet automobiles will be awarded to second and third prize winners.
Under a broiling sun, a record crowd thronged the Glenwood Avenue course yesterday to witness the fastest and most neatly constructed home-made racers to appear during three years of competition. With 75 registered, 54 racers qualified.
The surging, shouting, sweating crowd that braved a blistering sun to see the race raised a thunder of ovation as the winners hit the finish stripe. Radio Station WPTF, broadcasting the event by remote control, presented the class winners on the air, and photographers swarmed thick around them as the race ended.
Mr. and Mrs. E. B. McLaurin of Rockingham, who had cheered wildly as their son set a time record early in the race only to be edged out in the finals, were among the first to congratulate the winner’s parents.
“Maybe next year,” commented McLaurin.
Mr. and Mrs. Thompson beamed and accepted the victory in silence. Former Champ Wiley and three sisters were present to congratulate Hal.
The winners carried home a wide array of prizes. Before winning wrist watches in the finals, Thompson and McLaurin had bagged sets of skates in the semi-finals and flashlights in the preliminaries.
With the race course thronged by thousands, the Derby progressed smoothly with few mishaps. As the class champions sped across the finish line in the last heat of the event, a spectator stepped in front of McLaurin’s racer. The car swerved and knocked down Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Cone. Cone was cut slightly across the arm, and Mrs. Cone sustained minor cuts and a sprained ankle.
An over-enthusiastic youth who had climbed a tree to watch the race was shaken up when a limb gave way and he crashed to the ground. His name was not learned. The N&O, Aug. 5, 1938
Enthusiasm for the Soap Box Derby has faded over the years. Today, only Morganton has a local race. But North Carolina has a place in Derby history. In 2003, N&O writer Matt Ehlers interviewed Harold W. Hayes of Durham, who broke the event’s color barrier.
As 1946 Durham soap box champion, Harold W. Hayes earned the right to put his car up against the best racers in the country in the annual All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron. For a few days, he was practically a celebrity. He stayed in a fancy hotel and his picture appeared in the local paper.
“It was crazy,” Hayes said during a phone interview. Now 70, he still remembers how much the trip meant to him. “It was the first time I had ever left Durham.”
The history of the derby might be unknown to most North Carolinians, but the state has provided its share of the soap-box backstory. Adding to Hayes’ achievement, the first female drivers were from Fayetteville.
But Hayes participated during one of the derby’s most vibrant periods, opening doors for boys who came after him.
The first black driver to compete in Akron, Hayes took the fourth-place trophy back to Durham. “I was told I had a pretty good racer, but I had no idea I’d do that well.”
The N&O, Nov. 14, 2003
Read more stories from local and state history, and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/pasttimes.