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
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
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.