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Champions Only

The Soapbox Derby makes or breaks the dreams of 151 drivers in a 975-foot downhill dash

At Akron last week Duane Decker watched young champions from 38 states race in the 17th coaster classic. Here is his report:

JUST past the finish line at Derby Downs in Akron there's a small slice of unroofed stands which soapbox racers and officials speak of in their special idiom as "losers' paddock." But in big printed words at the down-stretch entrance to the paddock there's this warning to possible crashers: CHAMPIONS ONLY. Champions, by any paddock name, are certainly still champions, aren't they?

The very first champ to qualify for a seat in the libelous losers' paddock at the August 15 Derby (and he was followed, of course, within the next hour and three-quarters by 150 fellow champion-losers) was a 14-year-old driver named Carl Vogel Jr., from out Chicago way. Carl managed to cop this honor he wasn't exactly shooting for—that of being the first of the 150 who didn't come in first—by taking third place in the first three-man heat of this steaming 17th annual Derby.

Still looking a little bit dazed from defeat and tension, Carl was ushered out of his car at the end of the coasting runway that follows the finish line. As Carl started away, a little bit dejected-looking in head and shoulders, he took a final glance at his car (named by him 7-11). It was rapidly being removed by attendants for early crating and shipment back home. Some bright dreams of three years' standing went along with old 7-11. And they had been shattered for Carl in something less than the very first half-minute of this Ail-American classic. It's not too easy to shrug off a break like that.

Carl didn't look like a guy shrugging it off, not by any means. He did a lot of quick blinking behind his pale tortoise-shell glasses.

A little to Carl's right, Ralph Watts Jr.—who runs the paddock phones—got free of his gab and called over. But Carl was so busy staring straight ahead at some blur or something that he didn't seem to hear. Watts made his remark, anyway.

"You boys all drove a good straight race," Watts said, practically yelling it. "A real close one, Carl. A tough one, Carl."

Carl nodded and made sort of a smile back. Whatever his private thoughts were, there was no arguing the point that this was the end of the trail for him as a soapbox racer. Once a local champ, once sent to Derby Downs, the rules say you're through. Feller, Louis, Trabert—they all had a better chance to get used to pressure than this. "This" being Carl's half-minute.


For that half-minute Carl had worked some time. He'd spent somewhere between six months and a year of his spare time building three different racers for three different Woodstock (Ill.) competitions before he'd finally picked up all the marbles there and got himself shipped to Akron. And this final feat he'd performed the hard way—finished in the finals in a dead heat with another veteran named Gordon Swanlund, then beaten Gordon out in the big local runoff. No doubt he thought of some of this, the lumps he'd taken, as he sat and stared from his front seat in losers' paddock, watching the fast little four-wheeled bugs come tearing down the speedway, three of them abreast, over and over again, at precisely every 60th second.

The car he'd designed this year (and built) was as different from his original '52 model as a Jaguar is from a Jeep. Different, also, in just about the same ways. His '52 model had been on the squarish, wind-resisting side and had been propelled by plain old wagon wheels. In it, he found himself out of the money in the first heat. But next year, the new Vogel was much more streamlined and Carl lasted as far as the third Woodstock heat. So things were looking up.

This year Carl was 14. That meant in one year he'd be as completely through in Akron (official rules again) as DiMag is in the stadium. He didn't fool around. He went down to the public library and got a book on streamline designs. He studied it as diligently as the one on algebra. This car he really set out to streamline to the last little ripple.

Down in his basement he took the floor board he'd bought, cut it to fit the design he'd worked out in his head and on paper. Next came the body bulkheads; then installation of steering system; then brakes. He painted it blue, with silver aluminum on top. Two months it took in all—evenings and weekends. Result: the Vogel 7-11.

So the big moment of the big day finally came. He won't forget it soon: Sunday, August 15; time: 2 p.m. The luck of the draw put him at the starting line of topside on the speedway, along with Phil Peckham from Madison, Wise, and Larry Tracy from St. Catherine, Ont. His helmeted head was in the soapboxer's traditional crouch, nose against the metal baffle plate that drops when the starting lever is released. Then—the great big swoosh! Past 50 to 60 thousand full-throated fans from just about every neck of North America.

That brief dash down was the end of three years of study, work and competition for Carl. A fast traveler named Dick Kemp from Los Angeles wound up 150 places in front of him. Dick went home with a $5,000 college scholarship and Carl went home with his train fare free. But both gave it all, and Carl would be the last to deny that the flyingest car won.

It wasn't really until the 10th heat that Carl showed he'd already taken a fairly important fact of life in good stride. That was when he suddenly lost the dazed look, stood up and yelled as three more of the four-wheeled bugs came whizzing down the Derby turnpike.

"Come on, Pat!" Carl yelled. "Come on, Pat!"

It was a kind of weak yell, but a yell. And with it, the designer of the Vogel 7-11 showed he was sitting right where he belonged—that section of Derby Downs labeled: CHAMPIONS ONLY.