The Draggin’ Wagon: An All American Soap Box Derby

This week’s blog post covers the U.S. Information Agency (USIA)’s film The Draggin’ Wagon, (Local Identifier: 306.6618).  The film offers a unique look into the life of a young African American boy, Clarence Carter Jr., and his journey to create a homemade Soap Box car for the 1963 Soap Box Derby in Washington, D.C.

The film was produced by Gerald Krell, and was created for the USIA because they felt it was important for foreign audiences to see young African Americans participating in a classic American event.  The film was subsequently screened in movie theaters and American cultural centers worldwide.

Soap Box Derby Championship Logo
Soap Box Derby World Championship logo.

This year’s Soap Box Derby World Championship was scheduled for July 25, 2020, at Derby Downs in Akron, Ohio, but was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Here’s a look at the history of Soap Box Derbies, and the story of Clarence Carter Jr.


History of Soap Box Derbies

The first Soap Box Derby was held in 1934 in Dayton, Ohio.  It was inspired by journalist Myron Scott, who the summer before saw local children racing in homemade cars and came up with the idea to organize formal races.  In 1935, the Soap Box Derby was moved to Akron, Ohio due to Akron’s central location and hilly landscape.  The Soap Box Derby was sponsored by Chevrolet for many years and in 1936, Chevrolet and local civic leaders decided to build a permanent track for future Soap Box Derbies.  The permanent track, known as Derby Downs, was built in the southeast section of Akron with the help of the Works Progress Administration.

Soap Box Derbies were held every year from 1934 until 1942, when there was a four year interruption due to World War II.  At first, Soap Box Derbies were only open to boys, but the rules changed in 1971 to allow girls to participate.  Today there are local Soap Box Derby chapters all across the globe, including Japan, New Zealand and Canada, and the winners of local races still compete at Derby Downs for the World Championship.


The Draggin’ Wagon

The Draggin’ Wagon begins with the main subject of the film, Clarence Carter Jr., walking through a lumberyard in Washington, DC to pick out wood for his Soap Box Derby car.  He is looking for wood that will be heavy but not too heavy and that will fit his budget.  He ultimately chooses a piece of pine based on the recommendation of the lumberyard salesperson.

Draggin Wagon 1
Clarence picks out wood for his car.

After working on his car, Clarence is shown in his choir practice but is distracted by the church’s ceiling beams and how their curvatures remind him of the supports on his car.  After choir practice, he mentions that he had trouble figuring out how to get the steering mechanism in his car to work the way he wanted it to.  He figures it out through trial and error, like his father, a chemist at Howard University, does with his lab experiments.

When he finally finishes his car, he takes it to a local high school gymnasium where it has to be inspected by Soap Box Derby officials.  If the cars don’t pass inspection they’ll have to be taken home and worked on.  Clarence’s car ultimately passes and he leaves his car there so he can no longer make any modifications to it.

Draggin Wagon 3
Clarence’s car gets inspected by race officials.

The Soap Box Derby is a big affair, with the grandstands filled with spectators and a parade prior to the race.  The Soap Box Derby cars are similar in design but some look fancier than others, such as the ones with the smooth, glossy paint.  The races are run in a series of heats with three cars in each heat, and the winner of each heat gets to come back and race again.

Ultimately Clarence comes in third place in his heat, but he was able to improve his time from the previous year.  Clarence was disappointed that he did not win the trophy, but he was gracious about it and congratulated the winner.  In the final scene, Clarence makes plans for improvements so he can win next year.


Soap Box Derby Races of Today

Today’s Soap Box Derby races look a little different than the ones in this film.  Unlike in this film, Soap Box Derby cars today must now be made using kits and parts from the official Soap Box Derby online store.  Gone are the days of racers purchasing wood and picking out the right type from lumberyards.  The Soap Box Derby cars of today are more uniform and standardized than the cars in this film.  Additionally, there are many more resources available now with tips and ideas on how to build your car, from places such as YouTube and the official Soap Box Derby website.