Soap Box race cars have sped down Circle Bridge in the past but that competition was strictly for local kids. The Soap Box Derby scheduled for May 9 at 9 a.m., is an officially sanctioned rally. This is why over twenty out-of-state drivers are coming to Forest Park. It also gives the Derby winner points toward competing in Akron in the 500-car season finale.

National implications aside, the derby remains a down-home event. Bill Gerst is one of the organizers from the Kiwanis Club but just about every organization in town is helping out. This includes the Chamber of Commerce, park district and other non-profits like the Rotary. Of course, the event wouldn’t be possible without the village closing down the busy bridge for an extended time.

As Kiwanis member Jerry Lordan pointed out, Forest Park is fortunate to have any kind of incline. Many of the towns around Forest Park do not have hills or suitable bridges. Lordan sees this as a “destination event” that will bring more visitors to Forest Park.

It’s not just local organizations supporting the Soap Box Derby. There are enough food vendors participating to make this a mini “Taste of Forest Park.” Amelia’s, Chalk, Healy’s, Old School and Brown Cow will be serving food in Veterans Park at the base of the bridge. In addition, the Boy Scouts will be selling popcorn, Soccer (FPYSA) will be serving hot dogs, and Little League is providing pizza. Beer and Mike’s Hard Lemonade will be available, certifying the derby as a Forest Park event. 

So far, there have been about a dozen local entries. Gerst is hoping to have 50 racers by derby day. The registration fee is $50, which includes renting a Soap Box car. Gerst started out with 20 rentals at his house and is down to fifteen. Those interested in “having fun on Circle Bridge” as Gerst put it, should call him at 630-841-8832. The deadline for registration is May 7.

Stan Ingelhart, race director for the All American Soap Box Derby Race, heads the Greater Chicago Chapter. The winner of the Forest Park event will receive a trophy and earn “NASCAR-style” points toward racing in Akron. However, Ingelhart doesn’t see the Soap Box Derby as only a competition.

“It’s a bonding experience to build a car with your kid and the derby is an all-day family event.” Growing up in Bowling Green, Kentucky, he raced Soap Box cars in the late-’60s. After he moved to Chicago, he became race director in the mid-1990s. He says only 150 cities in the U.S. hold Soap Box rallies. 

“Rally circuit racing began in the 1980s,” he explained, “to give kids more races to compete in.” Race participation continues to increase, with almost half the drivers being girls.

Ingelhart knows something about that. He raised three daughters who all competed in Soap Box derbies. “We spent 10-15 weekends a year racing. We’d leave Friday, drive 4-5 hours and race for two days. It was more about family than winning.” His daughter Grace, 17, will race at the Forest Park rally. The maximum age for drivers is 20.

Soap Box derbies are typically two-day affairs, so there will be a companion race in Naperville the next day. McHenry and Geneva are also local hotbeds for Soap Box derbies. “There are only a few dedicated tracks in the U.S.,” Inglehart said, “none in Illinois.” He has no concerns about Circle Bridge being suitable for racing. “We’ll use whatever they can shut down.”

Soap Box racing began in Akron in 1934 and has grown into an international event. Brand new cars cost $500, which is out of reach for many families. So Inglehart keeps 25 cars on hand as rentals. There are three classes of cars: Stock is for drivers 7-13. It’s a very basic model and the kit can be assembled in 4-5 hours. The maximum weight for car and driver is 200 pounds. Super Stock is for older kids, or those who can no longer fit in the Stock model. It can have a maximum weight of 240 pounds. 

“The Masters Division is completely different,” Ingelhart noted. “It’s for 14- to 16-year-olds and the kit takes 50-100 hours to construct.” All three divisions will be on display at the derby.

A two-car race begins with a coin flip at the top of the track. The winner picks which lane they want. “There’s always one lane faster than the other,” he explained. The races often end in photo finishes. “A car might win by a quarter second,” Ingelhart noted. After the first race, the two drivers switch wheels and lanes and race again. The winner of the rally is based on accumulated time differential over their opponents.

The Forest Park event is a double-elimination derby, so drivers will get to speed down the north end of the bridge four times. To keep cars from careening onto Jackson Boulevard, four rows of safety cones will be on their sides, pointed toward the cars. This has the effect of lifting the car off the pavement. The cars are also equipped with a braking system. A foot pedal activates a rubber pad that grips the pavement. Drivers will be required to wear helmets. 

Ingelhart had one tip for local racers: Check out Circle Bridge during a rainstorm. The flow of water will identify which lane is faster.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.

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