Soap Box Derby days in Surf City

A LOOK BACK

I just heard on the radio that the police are going to crack down

on speed contests here in Huntington Beach.

Now I'm not so sure that I can agree that speed contests are so

bad and should be outlawed. What's so wrong with a good speed contest

anyway? I'm sure many of you remember sitting in a dark movie house

and watching the mother of all speed contests flash across the silver

screen. I remember it had the spoiled rich kid with his bright fancy

high-tech racer and how he dared our hero to race him for the hand of

the lovely lady. Our hero's racer was far from being high tech and in

fact he had made it from parts found around town. You may have

guessed by now that the film's rich kid was named Waldo, the girl was

Darla and our hero was none other then that little rascal Alfalfa.

And the racers they were driving in that speed contest were soap box

racers.

This week we are going to look back at the very first sponsored

soap box derby in Huntington Beach. The race was part of our 1939

Fourth of July celebration. A few years ago one of our local realtors

put out a calendar of old photos and one showed this very race.

Huntington Beach resident Jack Weide saw me looking at the picture

and pointed to one of the very young boys in the picture and said,

that's me right there. Many residents know Jack as the husband of

that celebrated writer and teacher B.D.L. "Billie" Weide, but few

remember his daring exploits down Edwards Hill.

This historic soap box derby race was to have been a side event

for our Fourth of July celebration, but as it turned out was more

popular with the local public than the big celebration. The derby

race was to be held at the top of steep Edwards Hill at Edwards

Street and Ellis Avenue on Sunday, July 2, 1939. But weeks before, in

garages all over town, many a boy and his dad were putting together

bits of wood and metal that they found in their garage or on vacant

lots around town. And in the days that followed the racer took shape.

Each boy entered in the race was given a copy of the rules and

specifications that each car or driver must follow. Each boy wanted

to be the winner of the race and receive a brand new bicycle and a

chance to go on to the Los Angeles Derby and maybe even to Akron ,

Ohio for the national derby races.

Two businesses were found to sponsor the race, they were our local

Chevrolet dealer, Dave Wilson, and the Los Angeles Daily News.

Can you just imagine how those young boys felt and the hopes and

dreams they each had in their handmade racers. On Sunday, the boys

gathered at the top of Edwards Hills at 2:30 p.m. for the race to

start.

Prizes were to be given for the fastest car and for the longest

distance traveled. Now some of you may not know what a soap box racer

is. It is four wheels on a wooden frame and a place for the boy to

sit and steer the racer. The car was powered by gravity pulling the

racer down that steep hill's incline.

Each car was started from a dead stop by pulling out a wedge from

under one of its wheels. In this race was Jack Murdy, from Huntington

Beach, and during his trials he reached a speed of 35 mph. He would

go on that day to take first place with a time of 34 seconds. He also

won the longest distance with a distance of 3/10 of a mile.

Roger Graham didn't fare so well on his first try and had to bring

his racer over to his pit crew for repairs. Robert Seaton of Orange

ran his racer to a time of 37 3/5 seconds.

Our next boy was our friend Weide as his racer flew down the hill

faster and faster to give him a time of 39 seconds. Those of you who

remember Edwards Hill can only contemplate the feelings that those

boys had in their stomachs when they sped down that hill as the

seconds were ticked off. There was only one little accident that day

and that only resulted in minor injuries. Harry Boer of Fountain

Valley received a time of 36 4/5 seconds during his first two races,

but on his third try he lost control and demolished his soap box

racer and received a few scrapes to his body.

All the boys were required to wear safety helmets of the leather

variety. These were no match to the modern ones worn by boys today,

but it was some protection to the head. At the end of the day the

judges awarded a new bicycle to the first place winner Jack Murdy.

But afterward, someone came up to one of the judges and complained

that Murdy's racer was not built to the derby rules. The judges

brought over a representative from the Los Angeles national committee

and after inspecting Murdy's racer declared the racer to be in

specifications and Murdy was declared the winner of the first ever

Huntington Beach Soap Box Derby.

Robert Seaton took second place, 'Daring Jack" Weide took third

with Roger Graham fourth and a stiff and sore Harry Boer placing

fifth in the best speed contest Huntington Beach has ever seen. Murdy

received his bicycle from Mayor Marcus McCallen and Murdy went on to

the derby races in Los Angeles. As for Edwards Hill, developers of

all those million dollar homes around the hill have shaved it down

that now it can be called Edwards pimple.

* JERRY PERSON is a local historian and longtime Huntington

Beach resident. If you have ideas for future columns, write him at

P.O. Box 7182, Huntington Beach, CA 92615.

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