Roller Derby

By Rebecca Crago, Research Center Coordinator, Historical Society of Frederick County | Posted on 06.22.13 – History, Look Back

Run nationally since 1934, the All-American soap box derby is a competition held to promote teaching children basic skills of workmanship and to encourage families to work together. Contestants participate in local races to gain a spot in the national finals each summer in Akron, Ohio. For many years, the local Frederick race began at the corner of West Patrick and Jefferson streets at the Steiner House, moving downhill toward Downtown Frederick and ending at DeGrange Street and College Avenue. Bales of hay guarded the intersection to stop any derby cars that needed help braking.

Different from the fiberglass bodied shells used in modern derbies, cars in the mid-20th century were primarily made of wood and did not follow the same safety guidelines that exist today. The rules in 1950 restricted the event to boys, ages 11 to 15, and required the car to be “boy-built” (all work required to build the car was done by the entrant) with no welding, brazing or soldering allowed, along with other design specifications. Today, both boys and girls, ages 7-17, are eligible to compete in the races.

According to the rules in 1950, all races were conducted on a system of elimination through heats. Cars would begin the race by force of gravity from a standstill position, without any help or pushing. Any signs of poor sportsmanship, such as intentional interference with another driver, were grounds for disqualification. No boy who previously won a race was allowed to enter again—the winning car of each local race was required to be sold to the newspaper or other official sponsor. It was stipulated that cars winning the national finals automatically became property of the All- American Soap Box Derby, Inc.

This photograph of the 1954 Frederick derby evokes a sense of community brought together by resourcefulness, workmanship and sportsmanship. The Soap Box Derby in Frederick shares a communal and cooperative history similar to that of The Great Frederick Fair. Thousands were brought together on city sidewalks to witness the spectacle, which was followed by a parade, for many years.