As you drive south on Memorial Oak Drive, on the left is a small building (yellow circle). Running east from the building is a narrow strip of asphalt (yellow line).
The building is one story tall and has no windows. The strip of asphalt slopes downhill to the east.
Near the windowless building and the narrow strip of asphalt is a picnic area named “Downs.” That picnic area is fittingly named because that windowless building and that narrow strip of asphalt yoostabe Rolling Downs soap box derby racetrack.
The windowless building still has “SOAP BOX DERBY” on the door.
For sixty years of the last century, building and racing a soap box racer were rites of passage for many a kid. All a kid needed was some lumber, four wheels, and a lot of gravity, which is abundant on sloped ground. In fact, soap box derby racers are also known as “gravity racers.”
To build a derby racer a kid usually also needed an adult. On my block in Poly, Mr. Foster up the street, who worked at the bomber plant and knew his way around a tool box, helped his son Billy and I build a soap box racer one summer. By “helped,” of course, I mean Mr. Foster did most of the work while Billy and I watched him and made up cool-sounding names for our wooden land rocket.
I don’t think Billy and I ever got our racer beyond the Bonneville Salt Flats of Burton Street. But lots of kids took to the hills and rode gravity to thrills and headlines.
The first official All-American Soap Box Derby was held in Dayton, Ohio in 1934: the Indianapolis 500 without engines. The soap box derby in Fort Worth began in 1946, at first sponsored by the Fort Worth Press but later by the Star-Telegram. In the beginning the race was held on West Lancaster Avenue at the Will Rogers complex (see video link below) and on Stadium Drive at TCU.
The Rolling Downs track opened in 1971. Rolling Downs was modeled after the national track, by then located in Akron, Ohio. In addition to recognizing the fastest time among racers, the Fort Worth derby presented awards for best construction, best upholstery, best design, and best brakes.
Also in 1971 two “feminine liberation groups” in North Carolina filed a lawsuit seeking to have soap box derbies opened to girls. The courts ruled for the girls, but Tony Slaughter, Star-Telegram columnist and director of the local derby, said he didn’t think a girl could win the first year.
And that’s when Mrs. J. R. Forrest of Fort Worth got mad.
Her daughter Christy became the first girl to enter the Fort Worth derby. Mrs. Forrest said she hoped a girl won just to spite Slaughter.
A boy, Kirk McDonald, won the derby that year, but a girl, Nancy Swartout, won her first heat against a boy, and Christy Forrest won the prize for best brakes in Class A. Another pioneering girl, Melissa Cowan, won the prize for best brakes and best design in Class B.
The derby was open to contestants from the Fort Worth-Dallas area. In 1974 a Dallas boy won. TCU coach Jim Shofner won the Oil Can Derby for “celebrity” contestants. Miss Texas was present. And the Moslah Shrine Band. And clowns. The derby was a big deal. Star-Telegram clip is from July 21.
The Fort Worth derby was held annually until about 1985 and resumed briefly in 1991, when Betsy Wells of Crowley, age eleven, won.
Somewhere along the way kids moved away from soap box derby racers to skateboards and kick scooters. 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 today along the asphalt track in southwest Fort Worth you can still see some reminders of Rolling Downs:
Remnants of the track’s electrical and lighting system survive.
In lane 2 of the track, weeds have filled every crack in the asphalt.
The track as seen from the top of the slope—the starting line. The finish line is about fifty feet lower than the starting line.
And you can still re-create the soap box derby experience by rolling down Rolling Downs. I did it on two wheels instead of four. I rechristened my bike the Gravity Express for the occasion. A competitive coasting speed on this course by a low-slung gravity racer was about thirty-five miles per hour. But I reached only twenty-three miles per hour during the thirty-two seconds it took me to coast down the 975-foot track and cross the finish line amid cheers that only I could hear.
Video: rolling down Rolling Downs on the Gravity Express:
And here is WBAP-TV news footage (with audio) of the 1978 race at Rolling Downs.
Need more speed? Jimmy Stewart narrates a three-part video of the 1951 national soap box derby championship in Akron: