Kids have been making soap box derby cars since the 1930s, but you won't see any orange crates with wheels rolling through derby competitions these days. The sport has adopted various plastic elements to modernize its cars without losing its nostalgic charm.
The All-American Soap Box Derby is held every summer in Akron. For 69 years, amateur racers have converged on Akron's Derby Downs in hopes of earning the title of international champion. This year, the top three finishers in each division also received up to $5,000 for college.
Stow, Ohio-based Remington Plastics Inc. makes every wheel that rolls through Derby Downs. In 1981, Bruce Sutphen, Remington's president, was part of the original team that invented a prototype derby car wheel injection molded from a single-cavity mold that Sutphen designed.
``The mold is unique,'' he said. ``It makes one half at a time; we take the two halves and interlock them.''
The wheels are made of a 33 percent glass-filled nylon. The wheels are crucial to the car's performance, said Jeff Iula, executive director of the All-American Soap Box Derby. A self-described ``derby brat,'' Iula has been involved in the races since he was 5 and has worked for AASBD for 29 years.
``We always ran the steel wheels with red side-plates and rubber tread,'' he said. But the steel wheels made achieving an ``unfair advantage'' much easier, Iula said, giving an example from his racing days: ``Me and some other kids, we would put chemicals on them and really blow you away.''
Plastic wheels were first used in the derby in 1982. After the press makes two identical halves of the wheel, the tire tread is stretched over the edge and the two halves are snapped together. Next, the bearing is pressed into the center of the wheel. A worker then uses 12 screws to keep the two sides together. Four complete wheels make up a set, which is boxed and sold for $90. Not-for-competition red plastic wheels can be bought for $15. The latter wheels are meant only to hold up the car so work can be done on the body.
Remington also makes the tire treads in-house from a thermoplastic elastomer. The 22-year-old company has 16 presses in its 32,000-square-foot facility. Sutphen said the company makes about 3,000 sets of wheels per year, including those it supplies to the annual competition in Akron. For the big race, Remington makes 540 sets of black wheels with yellow Goodyear decals to complement the white wheels racers use in local derbies.
``Jeff tells me the black ones are actually faster than the white ones - I don't know why,'' Sutphen said. He has been molding the black wheels for two years, ever since the derby became a Nascar Youth Initiative. ``Goodyear supplies all the tires for Nascar and they just want them to look more Nascar-involved,'' he said.
Nascar's presence has helped the derby by attracting high-level sponsors, including Home Depot, Domino's Pizza, Goodyear, Toyota, Dodge and Powerade.
There are three different classes of soap box derby cars: Stock, Super-stock and Masters. Stock and Super-stock are for children ages 8-17 who want to build a car from a kit provided by the All-American Soap Box Derby. The Masters class gives racers the ability to build their car from scratch, or purchase a kit, including a fiberglass shell.
Trilogy Plastics Inc. of Louisville, Ohio, has been making the bodies of the Super-stock racers for about 10 years, President Steve Osborn said. The company makes between 400 and 500 of the shells annually.
``[The cars] don't get destroyed, so they get passed down from kid to kid to kid.''
The durability is due to the polyethylene shell construction. Trilogy rotational molds the shells, which are packaged in a kit by AASBD for $395.
``They used to be made of wood. It would take thousands of hours. ... In a lot of cases the fathers did half the work because it was so complicated,'' Osborn said.
There have not been many changes in the way the shells are made in the last 10 years, he said.
``We use the same PE [resin], same colorant, the same mold,'' Osborn said. The ability to customize each car with decorations is the only major change he has noticed. ``The paints for adhering to PE have gotten much better, so decoration has improved.''
The shells for the Stock class of cars are vacuum formed by another Ohio company, Joslyn Plastics, a custom thermoformer in Macedonia. Much of the manufacturing for the derby industry is based in central Ohio simply because of history. The first soap box derby was held in Dayton, Ohio, in 1934 and moved to Akron by 1935. Goodyear, B.F. Goodrich and Firestone all believed that the derby belonged in Akron and became top sponsors, Iula said.
The derby alone is not enough to keep a manufacturer busy. Sutphen said the wheel production represents about 5 percent of Remington's business. He expects to start making wheel sets again in September.
Molding the shells is a seasonal task for Trilogy, Osborn said.
``We make them in the winter to ship them out, and people can start building them for the spring.'' Trilogy had about $8 million in 2004 sales, placing the firm 40th in Plastics News' ranking of North American rotomolders.
Derby races are held from March through July in 150 cities worldwide. Plastic's use in shells and wheels shows how much the sport has changed over the years.
``We've gone from wood and cardboard crates to plastic, just like the rest of the world,'' Iula said.
The 67th derby took place in Akron on July 31, despite constant drizzling and the occasional downpour. It drew 483 racers, up from 2003's record-breaking 432. Iula said the All-American race has never been rained out.
``With plastic wheels it doesn't matter. They don't get rusty!''