1936 Soap Box Derby

Historical Essay

by Peter Linenthal, Potrero Hill Archives Project, originally published in the December 2023 Potrero View.

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'Photo: John Gutmann

The first All-American Soap Box Derby, advertised as ‘the greatest amateur racing event in the world’, was held in San Francisco on July 31, 1936. The event drew thousands of spectators and a hundred participants to Carolina Street between 19th and Mariposa streets. Racers sped past the Pioneer & Queen Lily Soap factory at 18th Street, now Pioneer Square, to a rope net which caught those whose brakes failed.

First place went to 15-year-old Russel Scott of San Rafael with a time of 25.1 seconds on the 900-foot course. He earned a trip to the national finals in Akron, Ohio, held at Derby Downs, on a track built by the Works Progress Administration, an event which can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=StE8b_hPmng.

San Francisco kids found baby buggy wheels at a South-of-Market dump nicknamed The Crematory to build their gravity-powered racers, some named for girlfriends, others “The Tear Drop” and “Green Dragon.” Girls weren’t welcomed as racers until 1971.

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Photo: John Gutmann

Photo-journalist John Gutmann documented the race. He’d arrived in San Francisco in the early-1930s, fleeing Nazi Germany, and taught at San Francisco State College, where he established creative photography, international film, and modern art history programs. Thousands of his distinctive photos are online at Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art held a popular derby for artist-designed cars in 1975 and 2022 at McLaren Park, awarding trophies for Most Colorful and Most Amorphous. Bernal Hill was the site of 2007 derbies organized by the Illegal Soapbox Society. Each Easter, BYOBW brings big wheels together to race down the twisty stretch of Vermont Street.