2018-08-19 / Insight

Soap box derby meant to inspire kids to ‘build stuff’

BY PHIL FOLEY
810-452-2616 • pfoley@mihomepaper.com


Helmets secured, soap box derby racers in 2016 await the start of the next heat to the bottom of the hill. That year they raced on the newly-paved Oregon Street. 
Photos by Jeff Hogan Helmets secured, soap box derby racers in 2016 await the start of the next heat to the bottom of the hill. That year they raced on the newly-paved Oregon Street. Photos by Jeff Hogan LAPEER — Soap box derby racing, kids in home-built gravity powered cars, has been around since 1930s but until robotics guru and local Rotary Club member Tony Diodato brought the first Rotary Rollin’ Derby to Lapeer Days in 2004, there just wasn’t a history of downhill racing in Lapeer.

“I can find no record of it,” he said.

“It’s one of those things that comes and goes,” said Diodato, who raced soap box derby cars as a kid in the 1970s when he was growing up in New Jersey. He said his dad raced the cars in the 1950s.

“I’m not a car guy, I’m a programmer,” he said, but he thought soap box was fun and got the Lapeer Rotary Club to sponsor the first Rotary Rollin’ Derby.


An elevated ramp is used to send the soap box derby racers down East Nepessing Street. Check out the fun today (Aug. 19). Practice runs start at 12:30 p.m., while the first race will get underway around 1:15 p.m. An elevated ramp is used to send the soap box derby racers down East Nepessing Street. Check out the fun today (Aug. 19). Practice runs start at 12:30 p.m., while the first race will get underway around 1:15 p.m. In the beginning, he said, it was a total Rotary Club thing, but then some of the club members got too old to push the cars back up the hill, so he recruited members of his FIRST Robotics team and they’ve been supplying the muscle and the computer timing ever since.

Diodato said the race peaked a few years ago with 20 competitors and he expects somewhere between a dozen and 15 racers this year when the racing action happens today (Aug. 19) on East Nepessing Street. Car inspections start at 11 a.m., practice runs at 12:30 p.m. and the first race will start at 1:15 p.m.

He also expects a 74-year-old cart racer, Jim Leiby of Harbor Beach, to stop by.

Diadato said about half the racers will either have built a car or bought an existing one, and the rest will use one of the six cars he built a few years ago.

He said kids will hit speeds of 25 to 30 mph going down a 1,500 foot track on Nepessing Street that begins with a wood ramp that the Rotary Club rebuilds every five years.

“We do it just for fun,” he said. “I’d love it to take on some more gravitas, but I’ll leave that to someone else.”

With all the irons he has in the fire, the fourhour event is about all he has time for. “I’ve always hoped an auto body shop would pimp out a couple cars,” he said.

Earlier this summer, Diadato and his robotics kids helped the Three Rivers High School Robotics Club set up their first Soap Box Derby at the Three Rivers Water Festival.

The race, said Diadato, is “about inspiring kids to build stuff.”

Soap Box Derby

Today On East Nepessing Street

11 a.m. — Car inspections
12:30 p.m. — Practice runs
1:15 p.m. — First race

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