Soap Box Mystery Photo

February 3, 2013
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Gene Gilmore boards a plane for Akron, Ohio, with his mother and brother, George, in August 1946.
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Drivers march up Dunn Avenue toward the starting point of the 1940 races.
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Dunn Avenue today, looking from the stone pillars at Washington Park toward East Maiden Street
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Young drivers are ready for a qualifying event at Washington Park in the 1940 Soap Box Derby.

The Soap Box Derby began as a local event in Dayton, Ohio, in 1934. Two years later, it had moved to its own race course – Derby Downs in Akron – and expanded its scope to the nation. By 1940, the regional qualifying race here in Washington had become somewhat of a sensation.

That’s when we think this Mystery Photo was taken. We found a few other photos from the event in our archives, and under magnification the entrants’ stickers on the cars are marked, “1940 Soap Box Derby.”

Our readers helped us out with the location, which was Dunn Avenue, descending from the stone pillars at the entrance to Washington Park toward East Maiden Street. Their hunch was confirmed by one of the other photos in the archives.

Norm Cimino remembers the races held at the park, but he said they were also run on Murtland Avenue, from where North Avenue intersects toward Oak Spring Road.

“I remember being there and watching as one of the cars went out of control and struck a woman, and she received a bad laceration on her leg,” Cimino said.

But the Dunn Avenue hill is what most of those who called and emailed us last week remember.

It was there in August 1946 that Gene Gilmore was fastest and earned the right to compete in the world championships in Akron. There, he won his first heat but lost to the eventual champion in his second race, before a crowd of 97,363. He did take home the trophy for best-upholstered car, however. The Observer reported: “Tired and slightly bewildered by four days of restless activity in the Rubber City, Gene arrived in Pittsburgh with his mother and brother, George, aboard a Pennsylvania Central Airlines plane early yesterday. Moments later he was sound asleep in the car bringing him back to Washington.”

Phyllis Doria guessed that our Mystery Photo might have shown Gilmore. “We sort of grew up together in the Tylerdale area, and LouAnn Reed and I thought that he might be in the picture.”

Not likely. “I even looked with a magnifying glass, and Gene’s not in the photo,” Deloris Gilmore, Gene’s widow, said. The former Soap Box racer went on to be a switchman for the phone company and died last September, she said.

“His car was called ‘The Last Minute,’ and it was sponsored by the Observer and Reporter,” Mrs. Gilmore added.

The next year, the race was won by Darrell Amos, who also was flown with his car to Akron to compete in the finals. He also won his first heat but placed second in the next, before a huge crowd of more than 100,000.

Amos died in 1999. His sister, Karen Bennett, remembers that a photo of Amos in his car was hung in the bar at Peppino’s Restaurant, recently destroyed by fire.

Dave Clapp noted that the policeman in the photo is wearing jodhpurs, which were worn by motorcycle cops. He believes that Tommy Mitchell rode a motorcycle for the city police at the time, and that it’s possible he is pictured. That’s not confirmed, and readers could not identify or agree on any of the others in the photo.

The Soap Box Derby is still held every year in Akron, but its popularity has declined since a scandal in 1973. That’s when the winner of the race was forced to relinquish his title after it was determined that an electrical magnet was hidden in his car that gave it an advantage when the metal starting gate was dropped.

The derby is now held in conjunction with the Ultimate Speed Challenge, which is an open category in which engineers and university students enter high-tech machines capable of much faster speeds than the highly regulated cars driven by youngsters.

Watch next Monday’s newspaper for another Mystery Photo.

Park Burroughs has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1972. He is the winner of numerous state and regional awards for feature, column and editorial writing. He is the author of two books, “Enter, With Torches: Recollections of a Grumpy Old Editor,” and "Washington County Murder and Mayhem." He retired in September 2012 but continues to contribute to the O-R’s news pages.

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