Salem Soap Box Derby returns Memorial Day weekend

This weekend, for the first time in five years, determined young racers in home-built derby cars will careen down the paved track at Bush’s Pasture Park.

Soap box derby is back in Salem.

The Best in the West Classic AA Rally Saturday, May 25, and Sunday, May 26, has drawn in at least 25 racers from Oregon, Washington and California, seeking glory on the West Coast’s only official soap box derby track.

In soap box derby, young racers build their own compact, engineless cars using kits and race them, propelled by gravity, like a bobsled on wheels.

It’s free to watch, and races will start around 11 a.m. and run until around 5 p.m. both days. The park is located at 890 Mission St. S.E.

Salem’s track is special, and is essentially a replica of the Akron, Ohio track that will host the 86th All-American Soap Box Derby World Championships in July, said Sam Delaney, a board member of the statewide group that puts on the events.

“If you’ve raced in other cities, you actually use a city street,” he said. “So sometimes we’ll get families from out of the area that just want to come up and kind of practice and get their cars set up for how they might race them in Akron.”

There will be three divisions: stock, super stock and masters, which range from ages 7 to 20. 

Salem’s event is the last weekend of the year, nationally, for drivers to race and earn points for an invitation to the World Championships.

The Salem City Council first approved building the track in the early 1950s in an effort to give the park more options for play, according to spokeswoman Kathy Ursprung.

Back then, the cars were hand built using leftover material in garages, Delaney said. Now, racers build using kits with the same dimensions, and interchangeable wheels. Still, people can make minor adjustments to their cars to maximize speed.

1959 Championship heat, Class A Champion Bob Cummins, center lane, defeats Class B Champion Robie Norton in Lane 1 (Courtesy/ Oregon Soap Box Derby)

Delaney grew up in neighboring Dallas, and his son has raced for several years. Delaney never raced derby himself, but as a kid would skateboard down the hill at Bush’s Pasture Park. 

Salem’s track held races regularly, about one to three times a year, until June 2019. Delaney said that Covid played a big role in the competition’s departure, and that many of the organization’s board members live in eastern Oregon, which made returning to Salem more difficult.

City Councilor Linda Nishioka, who led the effort to bring the event back, said that it started with the help of slalom skaters. The skaters used the hill for their Slalom Skateboarding World Championships in October 2023, and Nishioka helped them figure out affordable liability insurance for the event.

While working with local skater Lari Rupp on the issue, they got to talking about the history of the hill.

“I said, ‘You know, Derby Hill is here because the soap box derby used to be here. And I am disappointed that it’s not here anymore,’” Nishioka said.

Rupp handed her the first step to bringing it back: Delaney’s email address. From there, Nishioka, Deputy City Manager Scott Archer and the derby board worked out getting the races back on in May.

This weekend, at the top of the steep slope, riders will remove their brakes and glide down the hill. Delaney said they can reach speeds upwards of 35 miles an hour.

The fastest races are between the older kids, whose cars have reclined seats like an incumbent bicycle. 

“Imagine a person laying in bed, with their head kind of sat up. Those cars can get over 30 in Salem, definitely,” he said.

At the bottom, they’ll switch their wheels and switch lanes for a second round. The overall time differential determines the winner of that heat.

On Monday, Nishioka walked by the hill, and saw that all the lanes had been repainted ahead of the event. 

She’s excited that it will be used for its original purpose again. She used to take her son to watch the races when he was little. 

“It’s so cute to see these kids in these cars that they made,” she said.

“Having lived here since ‘98, the soap box derby was always there. It’s such a fun family thing to do,” she said. “I just felt like this was a great activity, something really nice to have at Bush Park.”

Delaney said the race is also open to any child over 7 the day of the race, and they enjoy having new families get involved.

Racers should show up around 8 a.m. Saturday for registration, and there are a limited amount of loaner cars available for no additional cost. The registration fee is $35, according to their website.

Salem’s First Local Championship Race in 1952. Dan Adams, left, competes with his brother Doug Adams in the final heat (Courtesy/ Oregon Soap Box Derby)

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-575-1251

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.