In southwest Fort Worth, as you drive south on Winscott Road past Vernon Castle Drive, if you turn left onto Memorial Oak Drive, you have just veered onto Memory Lane.
On the left, see that windowless, squat building at the top of that slope?
Now see that sign post reading “Downs” at a shady picnic area on the left?
That picnic area is fittingly named because on that slope behind the picnic area yoostabe Rolling Downs soap box derby racetrack.
The squat, windowless building still has “SOAP BOX DERBY” on the door.
Building and racing a soap box racer were (mostly male) rites of passage of the middle of the last century. All a kid needed was some lumber, four wheels, and a lot of gravity. When you are a kid, gravity is your friend: Friend gravity helps you coast down hills, sink baskets and putts, and dive into swimming pools. But then one day, thirty or forty years later, you look at yourself in the mirror and see that your “friend” gravity has turned on you and has become the fiendish Phantom Sagger.
To build a derby racer a kid usually also needed an adult male. On my block in Poly, Mr. Foster up the street, who worked at the bomber plant, helped his son Billy and I build a soap box racer one summer. By “helped,” of course, I mean Mr. Foster did all the work while Billy and I watched him and made up cool-sounding names for our wooden speed demon.
The soap box derby in Fort Worth began in 1946. In the beginning the race was held on West Lancaster Avenue at the Will Rogers complex and on Stadium Drive at TCU. A major sponsor was the Star-Telegram.
Rolling Downs, the southwest Fort Worth track near Lake Benbrook, opened in 1971 and was used until about 1985 or so. The derby was open to contestants from the Fort Worth-Dallas area. In 1974 a Dallas racer won. Awards also were given for best construction, best upholstery, best design, and best brakes. TCU coach Jim Shofner won the Oil Can Derby. Miss Texas was there. The Moslah Shrine Band. Clowns. The derby was a big deal. Star-Telegram clip is from July 21.
Even today from the air you can see the faint footprint of the return path that led from the finish line of the racetrack (top) on the right back to the building and parking lot on the left.
Remnants of the track’s electrical system also survive.
Weeds have filled every crack in the asphalt of the track.
The track as seen from the top of the slope—the starting line.
Somewhere along the way kids moved away from soap box derby racers to skateboards (and then, via video games, to virtual skateboards, with lifelike virtual motion). Jerry VanWaart of the All-American Soap Box Derby’s Region 3 told me that today Texas derbies are held only in Amarillo, Houston, Beaumont, and Odessa.
But you can still re-create the experience of rolling down Rolling Downs—on two wheels instead of four. Recently I rechristened my bike the Gravity Express and coasted down the 975-foot track. Of course, a man on a bike meets more wind resistance than a youngster in a derby racer. Too, the weeds that have grown up through every crevice in the asphalt acted as organic speed bumps, causing my bike to buck and entertain dreams of running away from home to join the rodeo. Thus, I reached only twenty-three miles per hour during the thirty-two seconds it took me to coast down the track and cross the finish line amid imaginary cheers.
Video: Rolling Down Memory Lane on the Gravity Express:
Need more speed? Jimmy Stewart narrates a three-part video of the 1951 national soap box derby championship in Akron, Ohio:
Posts about sports and recreation:
Sandcrabs, Quicksteps, and Casketmakers: “Play Ball!”
When the Panthers’ Roar Was Pitch Perfect
Samuels Avenue (Part 2): Win, Place, and Show
“Fore!”closed: Goat Hills, Z. Boaz, and Other Missing Links
“Thrills to the Marrow”: Cowtown’s Motordrome
Cowtown Yoostabes, Derby Edition: Grab a Handful of Gravity and Go
Marvin Shannon’s Sweet Spot in Time
Evan Stanley Farrington: The Face Behind the Field
Cowtown at Play: Hooves
Cowtown at Play: Wheels
Cowtown at Play: Bats and Batons (Part 1)
Cowtown at Play: Bats and Batons (Part 2)
Cowtown at Play: African-American Parks (Part 1)
Cowtown at Play: African-American Parks (Part 2)
Cowtown at Play: Jangoloos and Bug-a-Boos (Part 1)
Cowtown at Play: Jangoloos and Bug-a-Boos (Part 2)
Posts about trolley parks:
Samuels Avenue (Part 3): No “Roughs, Toughs and Hoodlums”
Trolley Parks: Lake Como (“Most Beautiful Spot in Texas”)
Trolley Parks: “Beautiful” Lake Erie
Trolley Parks: White City (“the Model Amusement Resort”)