Cowtown Yoostabes, Derby Edition: Grab a Handful of Gravity and Go

derby building googleIn 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?

derby downs signNow 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.

derby buidingderby doorThe 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 apparently began in the mid-1940s. In 1957 the derby was sponsored by the Fort Worth Press and held on Lancaster Avenue in front of the Will Rogers complex.

derby 21 winnerRolling Downs, the southwest Fort Worth (formerly Benbrook) track, was built in the early 1970s and used for a decade 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.

derby googleEven 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.

derby red and bluederby lightderby breaker boxRemnants of the track’s electrical system also survive.

derby stripeWeeds have filled every crack in the asphalt of the track.

derby track from topThe 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:

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7 Responses to Cowtown Yoostabes, Derby Edition: Grab a Handful of Gravity and Go

  1. Bobby b says:

    I might have been part of the last group to run down this track in a soap box car! It was around 1997 I believe. I lived in Keller but ran with several people from Keller, Roanoke and a few other city’s around. You could tell then that the sport was on the downward slope. It was fun while it lasted but sad to see such a cool little place die a slow death.

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