Just as many people show up for the Soap Box Derby regional competition now as when Sonny Hardman was a kid.
The Highland father of three, who grew up in Pleasant Grove, competed in regionals and nationals in the early 1990s when he was teenager — and, before that, his father Gary competed in the 1950s. Sonny’s three boys, Beckett (8), Asher (10) and Grayson (14), have kept the family tradition alive, competing at regionals in Colorado for the past few years, including this past June 12 in Colorado Springs.
The Soap Box Derby has existed since 1934. As a national pastime it lives on somewhat quietly, but steadily sustaining itself over generations — even if the average outsider knows nothing about it these days.
If you were wondering: No, it’s not the same as the pinewood derby. (Sonny’s wife, Carolyn, said a lot of people think so.) Racers zoom downhill in their motor-free soapbox cars, propelled only by gravity, with the most advanced racers reaching 70 miles per hour. The youth racers typically reach speeds around 30 mph. It’s not for the faint of heart.
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The racers Hardman — all three generations of them — gathered in Gary’s Lehi home on Thursday to recall races past and present. Gary is a few steps behind the others during the conversation — he’s in the final stages of an ongoing battle with brain cancer — but his memories are among the best parts of the afternoon. He summoned an anecdote about watching a racer crash during nationals in Akron, Ohio, during his visit in 1957.
“I don’t know if he hit something or was going too fast or what, but he flew up in the air about this high,” Gary recalled, resting his hand 4 or 5 feet in the air, “and hit a reporter in the stomach.”
Thank goodness for news reporters: Gary has a binder full of old newspaper clippings from his racing days. There are pictures of celebrities such as Jimmy Stewart, Roy Rogers and Dinah Shore attending the national finals. He even has a photo of him with 1957 Miss USA Charlotte Sheffield.
“I thought that was pretty neat,” he recalled quietly.
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Seeing pictures of the teenage Gary, one notices a family resemblance spanning generations. Gary’s grandson, Grayson, is now the same age as Gary was when he went to nationals. Those who place 1st in the upper divisions of regionals go on to compete in Ohio, and Grayson hoped this year (his fourth) would be his turn. Alas, his car had an in-race accident — but didn’t hit any reporters — and the repairs slowed him down. Beckett, however, placed 1st in his division and Asher got 2nd.
“And the only person who beat Asher was a 19-year-old,” his mother, Carolyn, said.
“And barely,” Asher added quickly.
For the Hardmans, this year was even more of a family affair than usual. Because of Gary’s declining health, Sonny’s sister (who also used to race) and her children attended, too, as did Gary.
“The whole family was there, and that’s never happened in the past,” Carolyn noted.
Having everyone present was particularly special, she said. When Grayson’s car crashed, his dad and extended family rushed to the car and helped pull together the repairs. At one point the announcer came on over the loudspeaker and said Sonny’s boys were all dedicating their races to their grandfather.
“It was hard, too,” Carolyn said. “It was hard to get out there, and it was hot, and we were nervous about how grandpa was feeling, but I think to be able to be there with him was really important.”
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The Hardmans aren’t the only family with a soapbox heritage. Sonny said there are quite a few families like theirs across the country — handing down those tricks of the trade can be advantageous. Sonny even uses a few special tools that Gary built in the 1990s specifically for soapbox cars.
“They were a little upset that we came in and took a few of their trophies,” Sonny said with a smile.
Soapbox cars aren’t cheap. Sonny said they start approximately $700, and the more expensive ones are $1,500 once they’re completed. Building them takes several months and more than a few late nights. Though it does take a lot of work, Sonny appears to follow in the rather easygoing footsteps of his father.
“He was pretty laid back about it,” Sonny remembered. “It almost feels like it backfires when you put pressure on them — you get more nervous. He knew I would put enough pressure on myself.”
Building the cars together, Sonny said, is really one of the best parts of the whole experience — it’s where the bulk of the time actually gets spent.
“And of course dad wants to get it perfect and fine tuned, so that wears on their patience a little,” he said.
This was the first year Gary wasn’t actively involved in building the cars. Between his own, his son’s and his grandson’s, they estimate Gary has helped build 10 soapbox cars over the years.
“It was actually harder for us this year, because usually grandpa carries a lot of the weight,” Sonny said. “I had to pick up the slack.”
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Carolyn gets emotional when discussing what the tradition has meant to her and her family. She gets choked up mid-sentence, pausing to collect herself.
“And for my kids to be able to feel like they can be part of a legacy has been really important to me,” she said. “It’s fun to see Sonny’s joy when he can watch the kids do it. And it’s fun to be with Gary especially, and have that.”
By the looks of it, the family tradition will live on another few years. Beckett raced for the very first time this year, and it won’t be his last.
“I felt scared at first … and then after that first race I saw the 1st Place trophy, and it was really, really big. And I really wanted to win it, so I kept racing.”