Northern Maine Soap Box Derby gravity racing at its best

Episode # 266

June 2, 2019

Utilizing gravity and aerodynamics to go fast in Houlton

On June 14 & 15, 2019 gravity racers from around the state will be converging on Houlton, Maine for the 24th Annual Northern Maine Soap Box Derby race. All eyes will be on the 930 foot engineered slope at Wayne Miller Memorial Derby Hill in the community park.

Three divisions of racers will be offered, Stock, Super Stock, and Masters. At publishing time, the number of competitors in each class is unknown. There will be 14 new racers. They came to Derby Hill on Saturday June 1st to have their cars inspected and take a few runs down the hill without the pressure of race day. June 14 serves as the technical inspection day and drivers get one more tuning run down the hill before race day Saturday.

Past Director, Andrew Mooers, Houlton, mentioned that he and several others have been associated with the Houlton event since its initial run in 1995 on Grants Hill located on the north side of Houlton on Route 2. Mooers son and daughter competed in the Derby at Houlton and went on to compete at the All-American Soap Box Derby, Akron, Ohio. With Mooers help four other drivers won and were able to compete at the nationals.

The All American start

The Soap Box Derby was started by Dayton, Ohio newsman Myron Scott after he saw some kids in a neighborhood racing down hill with cars built utilizing soap box shipping crates, thus the name Soap Box Derby. Scott used his position in media to garner the support of local business people and landed Chevrolet as the title sponsor.

The first race was held in 1934 in Dayton, Ohio. In 1935, the race was moved to Akron where there were more hills. In 1936, sponsor Chevrolet and Akron civic leaders recognized the need for a permanent purpose-built hill for racing. This was constructed by the Works Progress Administration and ready for racing in 1936.

The race has been held at the track since that date minus four years when World War II was raging.

Soap Box Derby comes to Houlton

Local boy, Wayne Miller, Houlton, competed at the Bangor Soap Box Derby and won. He competed at the All-American Soap Box Derby as a result. Miller later died in a construction accident. It was in his memory that the John Miller Memorial Derby Hill is named. (Soap Box Derby photo)

Soap Box Derby in Maine was quite popular in the 1950’s and 60’s. After a period of inactivity, in 1995 with the help of a generous local sponsor, MBNA, the Derby was restarted. Several Houlton area families competed at Camden and asked themselves, “Why not host an event in northern Maine at Houlton?”.

In 1996 that is what they did. The race was held on a public road, Route 2 on Grant’s Hill. Public streets had to cordoned off, houses along the race had to be blocked in during races. Immediately after races the course needed a large number of volunteers to pick up hay bales, remove timing lights, and clean up the area along the streets used by organizers of the event.

Wayne Miller’s parents, Hallie & Vivian Miller of Houlton pull the starting line release mechanism to get the 1996 races in Houlton underway as depicted in this Bangor Daily News June 17, 1996 article. (BDN photo by Wayne Brown)

Andrew Mooers mentioned, “One of the things that causes local derbies throughout Maine to disappear is the non-permanent nature of the race venue. Races often were held on city streets as was Houlton’s. This requires many volunteer hours to maintain which leads to volunteer burnout. We can set up Derby Hill in a little over 1/2 hour.”

The organizers in Houlton recognized that in order to make their event more user-friendly, they would need to build a permanent hill with its attendant amenities that allow volunteers, parents, spectators, and drivers to have a great race without shutting down public roads. With the help of Northern Maine Fire Fighters and the Houlton Pioneer Times, and countless others, the funding for the building of Derby Hill was secured.

For five straight years, 1997 through 2001, the race in Houlton was the largest event in the nation. Houlton serves this year as the only venue for Derby races in Maine.

An older view of the track from driver’s perspective from the top of the John Miller Memorial Derby Hill. The track was engineered to look and feel like the national track in Akron. It is 930 feet in length. Derby Hill now has lights, a covered starting area , grandstands, designated access route to staging area to top, and is part of Houlton Community Park. (Northern Maine Soap Box Derby photo)

Derby contestants await their turn at the staging garage at the top of Derby Hill. Andrew Mooers mentioned, “This is my favorite place at the races, the top of the hill. The kids get ready and focus on the job at hand once they get in the car and await the start.” (Northern Maine Soap Box Derby photo)

Derby racers who go on to race in Akron have had success at nationals. Maine’s only National Champion representing Northern Maine Soap Box Derby was Mallory Bruen from Hampden in 2016. She was recognized on stage at the conclusion of the Derby. (Soap Box Derby photo)

Mallory Bruen of Hampden was all smiles during a reception at the John A. Millar Civic Center in Houlton after coming home from Akron, Ohio. Bruen raced in Houlton for several years. (Joseph Cyr photo Houlton Pioneer Times for Bangor Daily News article)

Three classes of Derby cars

Super Stock chassis to which the team affixes a composite aerodynamic shell. The wooden pedal on right near the front activates the brake mechanism which has a pad directly below the center of the car. This pad rubs on the track to stop the car. Steering is accomplished by the blue colored steering mechanism. New kits with body cost $508 for Super Stock, $520 Stock, and Masters $850. Race officials recommend you contact them since used Derby cars are often available. (NMSBD photo)

Local Derby racers follow the rules of the national organization which specify the age and class system. The classes are:

Stock, ages 7-13, minimum weight 200 pounds

Super Stock, ages 9-18, minimum weight 240 pounds

Masters, ages 10-20, minimum weight 255 pounds

Houlton Derby races are side-by-side two at a time with double elimination. This guarantees each racer more than one pass on Derby Hill. The registration cost is $35. Organizers hope to have a rally race in the fall with details to be announced.

Winners may compete at the 82nd All-American Soap Box derby in Akron July 14-20, 2019. National contestants are assisted with some financial costs and transportation of their car to the national event.

For information about the Derby in Houlton or Akron, Ohio contact:

Northern Maine Soap Box Derby (207) 532-8236

Houlton Parks and Recreation Department, Marie Carmichael (207) 532-7111

National Derby race

Derby Trivia

Super volunteer on left, Marty Sullivan, Dover, New Hampshire, President of All American Soap Box Derby Regional Divisions makes the yearly trip to Houlton. He helps with tech and transporting of state winners to Akron, Ohio. He spends two weeks every summer helping with the national events. Sullivan was elected to the Soap Box Derby Hall of Fame in 2013. Sullivan is discussing the 2018 winning Super Stock derby car driven by Stephen Bruen in orange in center with his Dad, Larry Bruen, Hampden. Sullivan first raced in the New Hampshire Soap Box Derby in 1960 at 11 years of age. (NMSBD photo)

Caribou’s Miles “Rick” Williams vintage Soap Box derby car hangs in a place of honor in his garage. The car illustrates the homebuilt nature of the pre-kit cars. (Photo courtesy Miles Williams)

Williams describes his Derby experience, “I raced in Lewiston as you can see by the date on the number, it was in 1967. The overall race was sponsored by the Bangor Daily News. Back then you bought a kit which consisted of the wheels, and the handlebar and the plans to go along with it.”

“The car had to have a total weight with the driver. I can’t remember for sure what that was but  think it was 200 pounds. My sponsor was the Sno-Drifters Snowmobile Club out of Woodland.”

“Dad put the car on top of our family car on a set of boat racks and away we went. As I recall I think I made it thru two races then to a third and lost that one.”

“When our kids raced in the Houlton race, which was in the early 90s, they allowed us to race our kids against each other, new car vs the old, and with no tune-up this car lost by only a couple of inches and was much more quiet going down the hill.”

In this June 1996 photo my son, Michael who was 11 at the time, awaits technical inspection at the inaugural Houlton race. He was sponsored by Family Radio WFST. His friend and neighbor, Carlton Babbidge also raced. Carleton was sponsored by WAGM-TV where his Dad,Wally, worked in sales. Both kids raced two years in Houlton and at the Caribou Rally Race August 1997. (HTF Motorsports photo)

Let’s go racing,

Tom Hale

Soli Deo Gloria (Ephesians 6:10-17)

PS Sting Ray Robb in action at Indy last week

Tom Hale

About Tom Hale

Tom wrote 14 years as freelancer for the Bangor Daily Sports covering motorsports in Maine. Now blogging and concentrating on human interest stories about people and places in racing. He races Champ Karts and owns HTF Motorsports in remote Westmanland, Maine