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Talk Derby To Me: Magnolia Soap Box Derby Sat., April 9

By Kristyn Boothe

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It was a warm but breezy day in Akron, Ohio – perfect weather for the 100,000 estimated spectators that came out to see the All-American Soap Box Derby. The year was 1936 and a young Herman Brown of Macon stood with the crowds as he watched his fellow racers speed to the finish line. Eliminated in his second round heat, Brown cheered the other racers on and in the process became a crowd favorite.

Ronald Reed wrote of Brown and his claim to fame in his book ‘Derby Downs: The 1936 and 1937 All American Soap Box Derbies’.  After a fellow racers car crashed during the 41st Heat, Brown offered his red-and-black racer so that the driver could continue to compete.

Reed writes, “While the cars were being towed up the hill, the track announcer told the crowd of Herman’s splendid offer. Thousands of people cheered as the towheaded youngster grinned bashfully, and his parents beamed proudly. So although Herman was not acclaimed as a racing champion, he was recognized as a champion sportsman.”

80 years have passed and our Soap Box Derby has had many changes. But the great sportsmanship shown by Brown back in 1936 is something that is alive here in Macon still with the Magnolia Soap Box Derby. It isn’t just a race down a hill and bragging rights – although you get that too. It’s about community, education, and fun. It’s about bringing people together.

After the derby took a 40 year break from 1947-1987, 100 local volunteers came together – including Macon Derby Champion Herman Brown and City Councilman Ed Defore – to bring the Soap box excitement back to Macon. In the years that followed, the race was moved to different areas along Eisenhower Parkway before eventually ceasing in the 1990’s.

In 2009, everything changed.  A rag-tag team of Maconites gave our Soap Box Derby a new start and life after a long hiatus by racing cars down Magnolia Street hill in downtown Macon, right next to Washington Park. This new beginning was named the Magnolia Street Soap Box Derby.

“What started out as a crazy idea concocted on a front porch has grown into an event that brings together a gloriously eclectic group of people from the community at large to celebrate feats of speed, science, creativity, and community. In short, it’s pretty rad and if you’ve never made it. You should fix that. Pronto,” said Chris Nylund, Race Co- Chair. “The word “pronto” isn’t used enough. We should fix that too.”

The changes didn’t just stop there. In 2014 Magnolia Street Soap Box Derby was awarded a Knight Neighborhood Challenge grant, which is used to supply all seven Bibb County High Schools with soap box car kits, tools, and programming within their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Curriculum. To mark this development and the broadening of the event to all of the Macon-Bibb community, the Derby officially changed its name to Magnolia Soap Box Derby.

“Our new tagline – feats of speed, science, creativity, and community – speak to the vision and type of experience you will encounter on #soapboxsaturday,” said Chris Tsavatewa, Race Co-Chair. “Our group’s passion for this event is more than evident and our commitment to community engagement and education positions the Magnolia Derby to not only be sustainable but grow over time.”

On Saturday, April 9th, over 30 adult teams and 11 high school teams will test their craftsmanship as they speed down Magnolia Street. Teams will compete in three divisions – professional, shadetree and the Gravity Racing Challenge for high school students. Not to exclude anyone, aspiring racers that are too young for the adult races can participate in the free kid’s Big Wheel Race – with Big Wheels provided by the Derby! DJ Shawty Slim and DJ Bruce Wonder will keep the crowd moving, and food trucks will be set up to keep the hunger pains away.

This year there will also be a change in the Best of Show Awards as the Derby has moved to a community texting vote. Prizes will be award for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place.

Win or lose, everyone is invited to the Hummingbird Stage and Taproom afterwards for the Magnolia Soap Box Derby After Party. B3 will be on the back deck and Back City Woods –along with The Pollies- will be keeping things going inside. Your favorite bartenders will be keeping everyone hydrated.

It’s Soap Box Saturday, y’all. Let’s keep the tradition going and the great spirit of Herman Brown alive. And let’s have a lot of fun in the process.

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