Cheating Scandal Shocks Soap Box Derby Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Engineer Robert Brookings Lange, Sr., encouraged his fourteen-year-old nephew, Jimmy Gronen, to install an electromagnet and battery in his soap box derby car. The addition of such a device violated race regulations and provided Gronen, the derby’s overall winner, with an unfair advantage. When questioned, Lange justified his actions by claiming that there had been extensive and consistent cheating by other derby participants in other races. Gronen’s title was stripped and he lost a $7,500 scholarship.

Summary of Event

On August 19, 1973, 138 youths between the ages of eleven and fifteen years gathered to compete in the thirty-sixth annual All-American Soap Box Derby at Derby Downs in Akron, Ohio. The participants, all winners in local community races, were excited yet nervous about their performances in this major race. Regulations required the racers to have built their own vehicles, with some guidance from adults if necessary. The event was intended to instill in children a sense of pride and accomplishment in their craftsmanship, but this year’s seemingly wholesome children’s activity was fraught with scandal. The first-place winner quickly lost his standing, stories of cheating emerged, and the outrage that followed tarnished the event for years to come. [kw]Cheating Scandal Shocks Soap Box Derby (Aug. 19, 1973) [kw]Soap Box Derby, Cheating Scandal Shocks (Aug. 19, 1973) Soap Box Derby Gronen, Jimmy Lange, Robert Brookings, Sr. Lange, Robert Brookings, Sr. Soap Box Derby Gronen, Jimmy Lange, Robert Brookings, Sr. Lange, Robert Brookings, Sr. [g]United States;Aug. 19, 1973: Cheating Scandal Shocks Soap Box Derby[01450] [c]Corruption;Aug. 19, 1973: Cheating Scandal Shocks Soap Box Derby[01450] [c]Sports;Aug. 19, 1973: Cheating Scandal Shocks Soap Box Derby[01450] [c]Families and children;Aug. 19, 1973: Cheating Scandal Shocks Soap Box Derby[01450] [c]Popular culture;Aug. 19, 1973: Cheating Scandal Shocks Soap Box Derby[01450]

As with other sports, derby-racing rules existed for creating uniformity. Derby regulations required that race cars not exceed specific dimensions, that the total weight of the car and driver not exceed 250 pounds, that cars use specific derby wheels and axles, and that welded material was not permitted in making the car. The policy, however, did not specify particular materials for the car body, which allowed for some flexibility in design. Throughout the years of racing, derby cars had become more sophisticated and the races more intense. With these advanced models came vague rumors of cheating, but the speculations had not been taken seriously—until after the race of 1973.

Racer Jimmy Gronen slid into his derby car, and the metal starting plaque was dropped. His car made a fast leap away from the starting line and down the course of 953.75 feet toward the finish line. Spectators immediately began to speculate about his unusually fast start. Because gravity was technically the only means of propulsion in a soap box derby race, Gronen’s quick jump ahead of the other competitors raised questions. His finishing time in the heat also drew speculation: Gronen won by a large margin in derby racing, 20/100th’s of a second.

Jimmy Gronen holds up his championship trophy for winning the national soap box derby on August 18, 1973. He lost the trophy the next day for cheating.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Rumors began circulating that Gronen had buffed his wheels, a prohibited activity, which led authorities to replace his wheels. Officials also drilled into the car to remove excess weight. Later, after the final run of the day, onlookers puzzled over yet another phenomenon. They wondered why Gronen’s race speed decreased in each of his three derby heats. Considering that race car tires normally heat up with each race, the expected result in successive runs was increased momentum, not reduced speed. It was odd that Gronen’s pace decreased with each successive run. Despite the suspicions, Gronen was named the official champion of the 1973 derby. His winnings included a trophy, a championship jacket, and a $7,500 scholarship. As Gronen received his first-place award, some spectators booed in protest.

Race officials then examined Gronen’s car and noticed prohibited alterations. A physical inspection revealed a button or switch that could be activated by pressing it with a driver’s helmet. Follow-up X rays conducted at Goodyear Aerospace proved that an electromagnet in the front of the car likely pulled Gronen’s car forward as the metal starting plate was dropped at the beginning of each run. Locating this mechanism helped explain Gronen’s quick lead at the start of the races and also showed that his decreasing running speed was the result of a draining battery caused by the electromagnet’s use. Two days after the race, on August 21, Gronen was disqualified.

The sophistication of the device hidden in Gronen’s car left no doubt that an adult helped in its design. Gronen’s uncle and legal guardian, Robert Brookings Lange, Sr., a former derby participant himself, admitted that he had encouraged his nephew to install the apparatus. Lange argued that other cheating had become commonplace at the derby and continued without repercussions, and he saw no reason why this case was different. A follow-up investigation by the district attorney’s office in Boulder County, Colorado (Gronen’s place of residence), revealed that at least thirty derby cars had, for example, illegal axles.

The race and subsequent scandal shocked derby fans and triggered questions about other possible cheating incidents. The grand marshal of the 1973 race, Gronen’s cousin, Bobby Lange, had won the 1972 race with a similarly designed car. Some people thought that Bobby might have used the same device in his car, while others wondered if his car was the same used by Gronen for the 1973 race. Robert Lange denied claims that the apparatus had been used previously, but the suspicious disappearance of the 1972 racer left room for doubt. Deceit and unethical practices in an all-American children’s sport were unconceivable to many. Just when the derby was seeking a new corporate sponsor, the scandal erupted, nearly ruining the event’s future.

Impact

The 1973 soap box derby scandal affected the confidence level of participants, spectators, supporters, and sponsors. The derby was known for its fairness and justice, but the scandal destroyed this assumption. Already in 1972, the automaker Chevrolet had withdrawn as the derby sponsor (but it financed the 1973 winner’s scholarship). Furthermore, the Akron Chamber of Commerce, which had sponsored the 1973 event, decided to end fiscal and managerial connections with the derby.

Robert Lange was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He was ordered to donate two thousand dollars to the local boys’ club and to issue a formal apology, directed specifically at youth. He also was banned from the derby for two years. Gronen had already been disqualified from the race and stripped of his $7,500 scholarship and championship coat.

The derby scandal and Lange’s rationale that cheating was ubiquitous at the derby brought the attention of the media. News reports compared the derby with the great political scandal of the time: Watergate.

Obtaining a new sponsor for the All-American Soap Box Derby was the main focus of derby organizers. The Akron Jaycees took up the challenge to rebuild enthusiasm for the event and immediately set out to tighten regulations. Racers were issued race-approved wheels and their cars were carefully scrutinized before the start of each derby. Drivers were asked questions to verify that they built their own cars. New starting blocks were created, too.

By 1974, the number of derby contests had dropped dramatically, but despite a general disillusionment with the sport, the competition was kept alive for the 1975 race by generous contributions from local businesses. Novar Electronics agreed to sponsor the derby officially in November, 1975, saving it from certain ruin. Novar remained the main sponsor until 1988. The All-American Soap Box Derby rebounded from its 1973 scandal, but the blemish remains. Soap Box Derby Gronen, Jimmy Lange, Robert Brookings, Sr. Lange, Robert Brookings, Sr.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibson, Gwen. “Watergate on Wheels.” Ladies Home Journal, August, 1974. Gibson reviews the events of August, 1973, providing a general overview of the history of the soap box derby. Also looks into the derby’s aftermath.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lidz, Franz. “It’s All Downhill: Gravity Rules When the U.S.’s Fastest Kids Roll into Akron for the Unsinkable Soap Box Derby.” Sports Illustrated, August 4, 2003. Thirty years after the scandal in 1973, the author provides a retrospective of the annual soap box derby in Akron.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Payne, Melanie. Champions, Cheaters, and Childhood Dreams: Memories of the Soap Box Derby. Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 2003. Covers the history of the derby from 1934 and provides a detailed account of the 1973 scandal, including its fallout.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosenthal, Sylvia A. Soap Box Derby Racing. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1980. A history of the derby written especially for younger readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Telanger, Rick. “Running the Gauntlet of Grown-ups.” Sports Illustrated, August 12, 1974. This article discusses adult interference in the designing, building, and construction of derby cars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodley, Richard. “How to Win the Soap Box Derby.” Harper’s, August, 1974. Reviews the 1973 scandal and discusses Lange’s involvement with the 1972 and 1973 winning cars.

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