"Anything That Coasts"

About the origins of Derbies—and the derbies at SFMOMA.

SFMOMA (then San Francisco Museum of Art, or SFMA) published a magazine in 1975 to coincide with the First Artists’ Soap Box Derby, a community event in which the museum commissioned artists to create outlandish trophies and derby cars and race down a hill in the city’s McLaren Park. In an article titled “Anything that coasts,” Henry T. Hopkins, museum director from 1974–1986, outlines both the history of derbies and the rationale behind the obviously weird and beautiful one that would take place on May 18, 1975.

by Henry T. Hopkins | May 1975

One bright day in 1933, Myron E. Scott, a staff photographer for the Dayton, Ohio “Daily News” was put on assignment to find some “good human interest” photographs. While tramping around the Dayton suburb of Oakwood he spotted a group of boys racing home-made apple crate vehicles down a hill. Being an alert observer, Scott felt that more boys and more cars would make a better photograph so he proposed that on the next Saturday he would give a prize to the fastest car provided the boys would get all of their friends involved. The big day arrived. Seventeen cars and boys showed up along with a handful of spectators and the first Soap Box Derby was run.

Forty years later Fletcher Benton, a Bay Area artist of wide renown, came to the San Francisco Museum of Art and suggested that the Museum sponsor a Soap Box Derby where artists would make the cars and the trophies which would be awarded in various categories of speed and style. He suggested that the event would have two primary purposes. First, it would be a grand day of fun and a good way to get the artists together with their public. And second, that perhaps the Museum could raise some funds for the purchase of works of art created by artists working in the area. The idea was accepted enthusiastically, the Women’s and Membership Activities Boards of the Museum accepted the challenge of organization, and the First Artists’ Soap Box Derby was underway.

Back in Dayton and 1934, Myron Scott was so pleased with his initial effort that he persuaded the “Daily News” to sponsor a City-wide competition. He chose the name of “Soap Box Derby” after discarding thirteen other possible choices. His main criteria for entry was that the contest be open to “anything on four wheels that coasts.” That summer, 40,000 spectators watched 330 contestants navigate Dayton’s Burkhardt Hill.

Following Scott’s example, the museum assessed artist interest in such a derby. The response was overwhelming with 60 artists committing to build cars and 30 more to design trophies. Committees for rules, underwriting, site selection, publication and entertainment were formed. Feeling that fewer rules, rather than more, regained Scott’s original sense of the Derby—the only restriction placed on the artists’ vehicles were that they must coast, that they must not exceed the dimensions of six feet in width and seventeen feet in length, that the vehicle contains an adequate steering and braking system—and a plea was made that the center of gravity be kept fairly low. Beyond that the vehicle was to be an expression of whatever creative thought, hard work and participation the artist desired—$100 was allocated to each car and $35 for each trophy, expenses beyond that were to be carried by the artist.

The date of May 18, 1975, was selected to allow enough lead time to prepare and (hopefully) the weather would be pleasant. With the help of the City, McLaren Park was selected as the site—not only because of its excellent curving hill but because of its good crowd facilities.

The event was to be financed through sponsorships of the cars and advertising in this publication so that the big race could be presented free to what we hope will be thousands of spectators, and we could still meet our secondary responsibility of raising some money for the purchase of works of art. The main purpose was for all participants to have a good time. We were acutely aware of the interesting and semi-tragic evolution of the original “Soap Box Derby” from 1933 to the present.

In 1935, Chevrolet became the major sponsor, and the event went national with the purpose “to encourage boys to build (vehicles) with their own hands until the job is finished and then to put their handiwork to a test in fair competition with others.” In 1936 the Derby moved to Akron, Ohio with the Akron Chamber of Commerce and Chevrolet as the major sponsors. 116 cities participated and the pattern was set which persists to this day whereby each city winner competes in Akron. At its height of popularity, the Derby had 50,000 boys (girls can now enter as well) competing in 150 cities, figures which are now down to 10,000 contestants and 130 cities.

Everything went big time, including the problems. Akron built a special Derby Downs 975.4 feet long with three 10-foot lanes and a 16% initial grade which leveled off at the finish. Myron Scott became Assistant Advertising Manager at Chevrolet and Derby Director and the name become [sic] the All-American Soap Box Derby. The rules went from “anything that coasts” to a 27-page booklet and even as early as 1950 there were rumblings about professionally built vehicles, boys lying about their age and other charges of unfair practices. It all came to a climax in 1973 when the winner was discovered to have installed a magnet in the nose of his vehicle enabling him to get a faster start. His uncle stated that because of all the other bad practices by everyone else he condoned the use of the magnet so the boy could be “competitive”; the uncle felt he only evened the odds in what had become a dirty system.

Thus, in 1975, it is our fervent desire to cherish the memory of the Derby’s founder Myron E. Scott by presenting an event where everyone has a grand and glorious time—where the rules allow for “anything on four wheels that coasts” and adding to the esthetic character of the event by using artists as automotive designers.

Will there be a Second Annual Artists’ Soap Box Derby? Only time, the energies of the over two hundred organizers and participants and the success of this event will tell. However, even if this day should pass uniquely and quietly into its proper historical place you can tell your grandchildren that you witnessed an event, in the midst of the sophisticated seventies, which once more upheld the best American tradition of work and play.


  1. St. Nicholas, March, 1936, “The Soap Box Derby,” by Harry Hartz.
  2. Newsweek, August 22, 1936, “Soapbox Derby: The Major Sport Event of a Silly Season.”
  3. Recreation, March, 1946, “Derby Day in Burbank,” by Arthur J. Jackson and Wood Glover.
  4. Recreation, June, 1948, “World at Play.”
  5. Saturday Evening Post, July 29, 1950, “Look at Those Kids Go!” By Harry T. Paxton.
  6. Life, September 17, 1951, “Derby Winners.”
  7. Popular Science, May, 1952, “Soapbox Racers Hit the Big Time” by Carl Konzelman.
  8. Business Week, August 9, 1952, “Soapbox Derby: Long Range Publicity Project.”
  9. Life, September 8, 1952, “Days of Glory.”
  10. Harper’s, August, 1974, “How to Win the Soap Box Derby” by Richard Wooley.”

Research for the magazine article was done by Michael McCone, deputy director at the museum in 1975.