Chester Martin Remembers The Soap Box Derby

Thursday, February 9, 2017 - by Chester Martin
Ted Hoge, Jr. with his soap box racer about 1946
Ted Hoge, Jr. with his soap box racer about 1946

One day when I was still in grade school I got a frantic phone call from my school friend Ted Hoge, Jr's dad, and it turned out to be the only such call from a friend's father that I ever got. URGENCY was in his voice. Ted Hoge, Jr., my school friend, had moved with his family from Chattanooga to the Sequatchie Valley two or three years before, so I no longer saw him regularly. We were out of touch with one another most of the time now, and I no longer knew what he was doing on a daily basis.

Mr. Hoge talked fast, blurting out a lot of details which were hard for me to comprehend all of a sudden. But it was soon apparent that my friend had entered the Soap Box Derby in Chattanooga and wanted ME to drive HIS newly built racer for that annual local event. My brain had a lot of catching up to do, but the salient point was the urgency, as there was to be a parade of all the race cars that very evening; I would have little time to get ready. After grasping the situation and getting the facts straight, I agreed to stand in for my friend, who had had a sudden stomach upset that prevented him from doing it himself.

Mr. Hoge spoke hurriedly with my dad and got permission from him after I had agreed to participate. Seems that Ted had worked on his racer for some weeks, then became violently ill just before the parade of cars that evening. Said parade was simple enough, although I felt very strange pinch-hitting for the car's owner/builder. He, Ted, was emotionally involved with the car, and I was not. My dad and I got the necessary details as to when and where to meet the Hoges, and my dad drove me downtown.

I had never seen so many home-made vehicles in my life! Nothing was standardized back then, except for dimensions of the cars, and a few other things which had to conform to a certain mold. All the cars had a similarity, though they might be made out of very dis-similar materials. Ted's car was constructed of both wood and sheet metal, then painted red. Every car had to have a sponsor - a local downtown business - and Ted's was proudly lettered with the name of the well-known, "Don Cherry Tire Company". Each car owner was expected to walk beside his car and guide it through the downtown streets that evening. Easier said than done, because I had to bend down to maneuver the steering wheel while pushing the heavy car forward at the same time. I was aware of people pointing at Ted's entry with approval while I was busily trying to guide the car in a straight line - or turn the far more difficult corners. I DO remember how the rear wheel protruded from the body constantly, and uncomfortably struck my heel at almost every stride. If the car had brakes, I do not recall, but they would have been controlled from inside, doing me no good. I just remember how hard it was to slow the car down when desired while walking beside it. When I saw Ted next, he did not seem to be sick anymore; still, he wanted me to drive his car the next day.

That day was probably a Saturday, as they needed to close 9th Street (now MLK Blvd) down for the duration of the race - at a great hindrance to normal traffic flow. Better a weekend than a weekday, however. Anyway, I was there and ready to drive Ted's car - was trying to squeeze myself, very uncomfortably, into the driver's seat. And,Wow! that rough lumber interior, although sanded, was really scratchy against bare legs - and, hard as I tried, I could not get down onto the seat! I kept thinking how I was no bigger than Ted, but HE must have been able to get in.

My day was saved when Ted suddenly appeared on that beautiful Saturday morning to take over command of his vehicle. I can still remember the relief I felt when that moment came! His illness was all gone by now, and he was very anxious to drive it himself. I was amazed how easily he slid into the driver's seat and was able to participate through at least two heats. He washed out of the event on that second heat, however, not making it to even the semi-finals. This was in no way seen as a "defeat", though, as it was considered quite honorific for a young boy just to enter and participate. Ted kept his racer as a relic for many years after that event, housed in the barn Mr. Hoge had built in the early 1940's. (The barn - I saw it very recently - is still there on East Valley Road, although I did not get to check and see if Ted's racer is still inside.)

Ted's father, MISTER Hoge (to me), had moved his family from Chattanooga shortly before WW2, as I have told in another story - (about Ted's sister, Ann). He was afraid the approaching war would lead to bombing of our TVA system and Chattanooga would be flooded. He wanted only the safest and best for his young family so moved them to the safety of their family farm in Sequatchie Valley. (This was long before Nickajack Dam was built). Their home was one mile from a mill where there was a dandy little woodworking shop on the main floor. It was in that shop where Ted and Mr. Hoge did all the woodworking and assembly work for Ted's racer. (Free water-power has its advantages, folks!) Ted Sr. was a gregarious businessman who came to Chattanooga almost every day and was able to get Ted Jr. a sponsorship for his race car from here in town.

Too bad that the Soap Box Derbies were discontinued here. I forget the reasons given, although they continue to thrive in other parts of the country. MLK Boulevard - east of the railroad overpass - provided an ideal gently-sloping hill where a steeper starting gate could be set up. Three cars were positioned side-by-side and could all three be released at precisely the same moment. From that instant forward, gravity took over and the cars coasted downhill at varying speeds until one hit the finish line.

Earliest soap box racing began in America in 1933 when the racers might be constructed from any kind of scrap material, from apple crates, to (real) soap boxes, to old wagon parts. Wheels might be made from discarded baby buggies - or virtually anything that would roll.

Nowadays, I understand, contestants can buy kits which include all the necessary stuff to build their own racer; stuff that can be modified to suit their own taste or requirements. These kits would all have modern wheels, doubtless fitted with the most modern Space and Computer-Age technologies to make for a far more sophisticated race than in the past.

I still keep remember, though, the chagrin I felt when Ted slipped into his car so easily, while I had been totally unable to do it. (Anyone would have said we were almost identical in size). A private home on the south side of MLK set up a hot dog stand on race day, and that hot dog I bought was MY great prize of the day! I relaxed while munching a really great 'dog while my friend was sweating away on the racetrack! I never pass that way without looking toward the old house and its one day of fame for selling Chattanooga's best - and most comforting - hot dog!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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