Robert Eller

For the last few weeks, stories of the rise and fall of the Soap Box Derby in Hickory has been the topic. The last race, run in 1972, signified the end of competition. When revelations of  cheating in Akron (home of the national championship) became public, support for the competition took a dive.

Now, a half century later, interest in the races has renewed. On Saturday, March 9, the Historical Association of Catawba County will debut its new exhibit, entitled A Race To Remember at the History Museum, on Courthouse Square in Newton. The kickoff starts at 11am within the upstairs courtroom and includes a short documentary on the races that will include the Hickory Jaycee’s Super Eight film from the 1969 race, along with photographs and interviews supplied from the competitors themselves. A number of them will also be on hand to answer questions about when they went “down the hill,” a term most of them use to describe the racing experience.

On the main floor of the museum will be an exhibit featuring five of the six cars that won local competitions from 1967 to 1972. Also part of the presentation will be an overview of Soap Box Derby history, how it came to Hickory, and the success it attained.

Soap Box Derby Lives

Photo: A still from the documentary. Come out and see it Saturday with folks who made history.

As leader of the effort to bring the story back to the public, David Puett noted how the exhibit will show Catawba County what teenagers were doing in those days. Last fall, he brought in one of the cars for museum staff to see. Lillian Underwood, one of the HACC’s researchers, instantly recognized that a display to tell the story would make for compelling history. Her tireless efforts brought A Race to Remember to life.

David Puett has made contacts, old and new with his fellow Soap Box Derby contestants. He tells the story of a chance encounter, some thirty years after he got beat in his first heat. As a salesman for Klingspor Abrasives, he walked into a business and exchanged cards with Tim Whitener. Each recognized the other’s name. Tim asked David if he ever competed in the Soap Box Derby. David replied yes and acknowledged that Tim was the kid who beat him in that first round.

As a 14-year-old kid, David admitted that the loss hurt. He told his father, years after the event that after he pushed his car back up the hill in 1968, he cried a bit over the defeat. His father told him, “son, I did too.”

All of the racers you will meet at the unveiling on Saturday talk about the cherished memories they have of the annual event, while it lasted. Many still remember how they built their car, the activities they attended, like workshops on how to construct their entry, also the banquets and group trips they took together (which included Six Flags Over Georgia and Atlanta Braves games), sponsored by Jaycees as a reward for participation.

The boys, now men, also want the event to honor the man who made it all possible. Now in his mid-80s, John Vaughn was the driving force that planned and carried out each year’s event and participants want him to know how much they love and respect him for it.

The event promises to be an exciting day with fond reflections, not just for the competitors, but for all of use who love a good trip back in time. A commemorative book will be on sale, with racers recounting those days in their own words and lots of images.

By the way, if you can’t get there, you can still see the documentary on Youtube. Keywords “Hickory,” “Soap Box Derby,” and “1967-72” will help you get there. As you might expect, the name of the film is “Down the Hill: Catawba County’s Soap Box Derby.”