Colin Berry wonders whether building a soap box derby racer was his brother’s last best chance at escaping his fate.
All his life, my brother, Kevin, was plagued with terrible luck. It began when he was a teenager, and soon became something of a family legend. This was in the early 1970’s, in Longmont, Colorado—our hometown—and if the Trojan theater was giving away free Planet of the Apes tickets, the kid in front of him in line got the last one.
If Kevin sold enough newspaper subscriptions to win a clock radio, it was broken when he opened the box. If a friend shoplifted a pack of Odd Rods bubblegum cards on the way home from school, Kevin got collared for it.
It was a pattern. He weathered it well, half-joking about his luck with his shy, gap-toothed grin, but over time it took a terrible toll.
In shop class, however, Kevin seemed to step from its shadow. He was adept with tools and proved himself a skilled carpenter at an early age. I was seven years younger, and remember marveling at the first projects he brought home from junior high school: a varnished gun rack; a Newton’s Cradle, with its five suspended steel balls; a sturdy set of bedroom shelves for his Revell models.
Looking back, it follows that the noisy, meditative setting of the woodshop would appeal to Kevin, a place where no one was shouting at him, where no electronic parts could mysteriously fail.
In our basement, Dad had a woodshop, too, a flagstone-floored, fluorescent-lit grotto with an oversized plank workbench, barrels of wood scraps, and pegboard hung with tools. It was here, from 1969 to 1972, that my brother built four Soap Box Derby racers.
He would start in late winter, when snow still lay on the ground outside, transforming the small stack of lumber and paper sacks of hardware into a teen- sized, gravity-propelled vehicle. Balancing the shell of the car across two sawhorses, he built each the same way: a pine plank floorboard supported several plywood bulkheads, to which he anchored Masonite sides and top.
Each car ran on four red-rimmed Soap Box Derby wheels, controlled by a simple cable steering system and foot-pedal drag brake. Each was painted and lettered with Kevin’s name, number, and sponsor logo (Weicker Moving and Storage). And each one got faster.
Fundamentals, however, were the only thing Kevin’s cars had in common. The first two (green, orange) were simple sit-down models; the next two, painted the same bronze as Weicker’s moving vans, were long, elegant lie-back cars, their rear headrest supporting my brother’s head, his bright blue eyes barely visible from beneath the white regulation Derby helmet.
I remember leaning against the doorway, watching him work: The aroma of fresh sawdust mixing with hot electric motor smells of the drill and jigsaw, whiffs of Plastic Wood and the rubbery tang of new wheels. The radio segueing from Jerry Reed’s “Amos Moses” into Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”—
We come from the land of the ice and snow
From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow—
and the gentle screek screek of Kevin’s file or keyhole saw drowing out the muffled voices coming from upstairs. He was fourteen; I was seven. I idolized him, of course. And even though he ignored me, rasping an axle tree into aerodynamic shape, he probably secretly enjoyed having me down there with him.
After dinner, Dad would look in on him, too, but by then the two of them already had a tempestuous relationship. With his stoic patience, my father could never—would never—understand Kevin’s propensity for frustration and impulsive anger. A frozen bolt or misdrilled hole could send him into a furious rage, sabotaging many days’ work in a scary tantrum. Generally he worked alone.
Kevin’s labors were part of a long tradition. Started by Chevrolet in 1934, the All-American Soap Box Derby is known as the “World’s Gravity Grand Prix,” and in my brother’s day, it was open only to boys eleven to sixteen. Its rules were strict: Cars couldn’t exceed 80 inches in length or 250 pounds, including driver; materials couldn’t cost more than $40.
Contestants built their own cars; parents could offer advice—Kevin could check with Dad on how to laminate the nosepiece or shim the axles (as I did, seven years later)—but the regs specifically forbade adult intervention. Each boy raced in a local competition (ours was in Boulder, on Lehigh Street hill, around July 4th), and the local winner went to Akron, Ohio, for the national championship. Akron winners received a trophy, a $7,500 college scholarship, and a white champion’s jacket which, if I shut my eyes, I could almost picture Kevin wearing.
With each year, his cars got better. The last—in 1972, when he was sixteen—was magnificent, a sleek, teardrop-shaped stiletto with meticulously trued wheels, reverse-hinged rear brake, and steering system that glided gracefully in its guides. As his early racers were amateurish and hand-spray-painted, this one was elegant and sophisticated, with steel sleeves for its cables, a carpeted floorboard, and four airbrushed coats of copper auto body paint applied inside a newspaper-lined cubicle. Most boys Kevin’s age couldn’t have built it.
At sixteen, Kevin was tilting towards trouble. He already had his learner’s permit, and he’d begun associating with boys who drove real cars, and smoked Winstons, and hung out in his attic room, laughing and talking and listening to what would someday be called Classic Rock.
Sometimes they would disappear for a while in Carl Kleveno’s blue Duster, returning with red-rimmed eyes and smelling smoky and sweet. Though we never mentioned it aloud, my family knew the 1972 Derby marked the end of something, and convinced ourselves it was Kevin’s last best chance to win.
Race day dawned dry and cloudless. After Dad and Kevin chocked his car carefully into the Fairlane and Mom and my sisters packed tuna sandwiches and a thermos of milk into the Chevelle, we caravanned to Boulder, securing a spot near the bottom of Lehigh where we could see the finish line. The mood was playful and competitive, spectators mixing with the young racers.
In his preliminaries, my brother clocked a better time than anyone—more than two seconds faster than the next contender, Bobby Lange, Jr., a rich kid from Boulder with a shiny fiberglass car and a cocky attitude. Kevin won his first few heats easily, a copper blur shooting past the finish line, past the checkered flag, and past his sunburned family, who waved and screamed like demons.
“Come on, Kevin!” “Go! Go! Goooo!” “Keviiiiiiiiin!” And the winner is Kevin Berry, Weicker Moving and Storage! With nearly thirty boys competing, the double-elimination race seemed to crawl. Still, I remember feeling it was marching toward Kevin’s inevitable victory and, although I wasn’t conscious of it, an almost tangible lifting of his tainted luck.
Sometime after 3:00, after an endless succession of heats, only six cars remained: Kevin’s, Lange’s, and four others. On one race, however, as Kevin sped past, I saw something strange happen: Just past the finish line, his car pulled suddenly to the left, and rather than braking normally, swerved and plowed into the hay bales piled at the bottom of the hill. Dad and I dropped our pops and sprinted to him.
Dad got there first. “You all right, Kev?” He sounded worried.
My brother had pulled his helmet off, his face sweaty and pale. He was clearly distressed. “I’m okay, but I think the car’s messed up,” he said. “I’m not sure what happened.”
Race officials ran over, pulling bales off the car and lifting Kevin out carefully. He wasn’t hurt, but as they rolled his car away, its rear wheels made a jarring shudder. Something was wrong.
“Look at that!” Kevin moaned, pointing, and Dad and I looked: Freshly splintered wood protruded from the foam rubber padding where the axle met the body. Somehow his brake had failed, and the crash had torqued the car badly out of alignment.
That was it. Kevin lost his next race by two car lengths, and half an hour later Bobby Lange was the 1972 Boulder champion. I remember riding home in stony silence.
The story could end there—and in a way it did, at least for Kevin. In August, he bought his first real car, a ’61 Buick Special, using money he’d made working at Marcantonio’s Pizza. Bobby Lange won in Akron, too; the Boulder Daily Camera printed a picture of him, smiling and waving and wearing the white jacket. Kevin’s racer went up on blocks.
We didn’t pay much attention at first, but the next year, 1973, Bobby Lange’s cousin, Jimmy Gronen, also won the Boulder race and went on to win Akron as well. Yet officials had noticed a strange lurch as Gronen’s car came off the metal starting blocks, and the next day, they x-rayed it and discovered a powerful electromagnet hidden inside the nose of the car. It was wired to a switch Jimmy’s head activated as he lay back in his headrest, and gave him a jump off the line.
The scandal rocked the Derby. Gronen was stripped of his title, his winnings given to the second-place finisher. But the real blame fell on Jimmy’s guardian uncle, ski-boot magnate Robert Lange, Sr.—Bobby’s father. In legal documents and public statements, the elder Lange took full responsibility for the magnet’s idea (though not its construction), pointing out with indignation that cheating was endemic to the Derby.
At some point, officials asked to x-ray Bobby’s 1972 car, too—the car that had beaten my brother’s—-which the D.A. found during his investigation had been built with $10,000 to $20,000 worth of engineering expertise. This was clearly beyond the rules. Though Derby cars are usually preserved for promotion, Bobby’s car was nowhere to be found, and remains so today.
None of this really mattered to Kevin. He was past all that, enmeshed in a teenager’s life filled with the cars, cigarettes, beer, and drugs mid-1970’s kids suddenly had to contend with. Within two years, Kevin had accumulated a reckless driving citation, a DUI, a trip to the police station, and a long succession of real cars, some of them wrecked. Like the radio signal from an interplanetary probe that passes behind a planet, his bad luck, which had seemed to disappear for a while, was back, loud and clear.
Kevin barely graduated from high school, taking a series of jobs working for heating contractors until his patience wore thin. He didn’t build much of anything after that—a shingled camper for his pick-up, a metal tool box for Dad—and didn’t seem to have any hobbies. He and I grew distant. His friends seemed to disintegrate into desperation or suicide and, in 1998, he did, too, with a .22 pistol in the small, neat bedroom of his trailer on the outskirts of Boulder. He died in January, confessing in his note that he couldn’t stand working outside in the cold anymore.
What would have happened to Kevin if things had unfolded differently that July day in 1972? How much would have changed? What happened to his brake? Why did it fail? And if it hadn’t, could he have beaten Bobby Lange, even if—and it’s all if, of course—Lange was cheating?
Questions pile up like January snow, obfuscating any real truths and forcing those of us who knew Kevin to turn over a thousand times in our minds the ways it might have gone better. In a way, we—his family—are most to blame for the way we perpetuated Kevin’s bad luck in our stories and expectations, allowing it to poke through even as he tried to build something solid against it.
Just once, we might have speculated how that long bronze car might have carried him into something better.
Despite the scandal, the Derby has survived, though altered almost beyond recognition: Cars are built with kits now, and boys and girls from eight to seventeen compete, rally-style, in three different divisions. The rules for each comprises a massive PDF file, and kits start at $400—not including wheels, which cost up to $100 a set.
Even in Kevin’s day, Soap Box Derby wheels were something singular. Every year he was issued a new set, and when the car was ready, balancing there on its planks, he would slide the new wheels onto their axles, secure the cotter pins, and give them their first long spin. They would whirl for countless minutes—half an hour sometimes, an extended low hiss like the sound of a distant crowd cheering. There in the dusty woodshop, it was a sound my brother and I hoped would last forever.
A version of this essay first appeared in Volume 7 of MAKE magazine