By Kathryn G. Menu
On an afternoon in late June, hundreds of people crowded the curbside along High Street to wave flags, clang bells and cheer from the top of hay bales for their favorite contenders, speeding—in most cases anyway—down a street last traversed by soapbox derby racers in the 1950s.
The racing day, which brought to mind images of Norman Rockwell paintings, will return to Sag Harbor this summer on June 8, with boy scouts, cub scouts and girl scouts vying in their own racers for prizes. Children as young as 7, and as old as 17, are expected to compete in five divisions.
The soapbox derby, a Sag Harbor tradition in the 1950s and ’60s, was resurrected last year by Sag Harbor Cub Scout Pack 455 leaders Laurie Barone-Schaeffer and Geraldine Merola. Last week, the pack leaders returned to the Sag Harbor Village Board and received approval to hold the event for the second consecutive year.
The success of last year’s derby, which featured 34 racers of various colors, shapes, and even themes, inspired Ms. Barone-Schaeffer to consider expanding it to include scouts from neighboring communities. This week, she said without a larger track to work with, the event would have to remain open only to scouts from Sag Harbor.
“We can’t involve scouts from other towns yet simply because of the size of space we are working with,” said Ms. Barone-Schaeffer on Wednesday. “I would love to see that happen someday, but that is going to require us finding a facility that is large enough.”
“The amount of spectators we had last year was just amazing, and to have other scouts would be a great thing, but we want to be fair to the homeowners on High Street and keep them in mind as well,” she added.
In an effort to keep the material costs affordable for all scouts, Ms. Barone-Schaeffer added the derby is still not a qualifier for a national championship race at the Derby Downs in Akron, Ohio.
“It’s really important to us that this remains something everyone can be involved in,” she said.
And yet it is true that while soapbox derby races are reminiscent of another era, they remain events celebrated in communities across the country. Soapbox racing officially became a sport in 1933, after a Dayton, Ohio, photographer, Myron Scott, brought together the first 19 racers for an event in Ohio. A national competition was held in 1934 and continues today at the Derby Downs.
Ms. Barone-Schaeffer added for the scouts, the derby is just as much about events leading up to the actual race as it is about who ends up victorious on the podium.
“The whole process in creating the soap box racers was just so amazing last year,” she said. “Our scouts got to meet so many people in the community they might not have otherwise. They recorded an advertisement on WLNG, they worked with the people at Riverhead Building Supply, who generously donated materials for the racers, they talked to the press, they went through the process of getting approval for the event through the village board. They really learned what it takes to get something done.”
It is also an opportunity, she added, to work closely with parents and their troop in the actual construction of the cars, which last year took on several forms from the traditional to a derby car shaped like a tractor, another wood-paneled, and yet another shaped like a garbage can.
“The building is really a bonding moment for scouts and their parents, but also between the parents themselves,” said Ms. Barone-Schaeffer. “Everyone is working together, helping each other out. It is a race, but we have all of these workshops leading up to the race where we build together. It’s not a cut-throat competition.”
Ms. Barone-Schaeffer said she expects to start organizing this year’s event next week, with the first committee meeting. She hopes for a similar turnout for this year’s derby race as last year’s competition.
“I can’t even put it into words how it felt to have that kind of support from the community last year,” she said. “It was overwhelming and heart-warming and reinforced everything I love about Sag Harbor. It’s a community like no other, where we still come out and rally around an old fashioned event like this.”