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Soap Box Derby Shows Change With AM-Edsels, Bjt

August 11, 1989

WILLISTON, Vt. (AP) _ When he was a kid, Ken Bessette Jr. didn’t play baseball or basketball.

He raced cars. Well, soap box derby cars. He assembled parts in his basement and talked shop with mechanics at the Vermont Transit Co. Inc. garage where his father worked.

″I remember coming home from school in the afternoon and working right up until suppertime,″ Bessette said. That was the early 1950s. And even all these years later, Bessette remembers the thrill zipping down a hill at 35 miles per hour in a 14-inch tall car.

His dream then was to attend the All American Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio, the Olympic Games for soap box racers. And even though he came close on several occasions, he never made it.

Until this year.

Bessette, who is attending the derby as part of the Vermont delegation, is part of what race organizers call a resurgence in the event that dates to the early 1930s.

Jeff Iula of the All-American Soap Box Derby said the race had its heyday in the late 1960s, but is making a comeback now as the children of the baby boom generation begin to filter into the ranks.

He said there are about 5,000 participants and qualifying races nationwide this year. The finals are set for Saturday.

Vermont, for example, hadn’t held a race since 1985, and hadn’t held one in the state’s largest city since the 1950s. But when Bessette heard about the return of the soap box derby to Vermont, he was ready to roll.

His youngest child is 26 - too old to race. Undeterred, Bessette rounded up two neighbors, Erik and Travis Holcomb, and suggested they enter.

Bessette would say that helping build the two cars was done mostly for the kids. Don’t be fooled. He enjoyed this as much as they did.

″Cars are my thing,″ he said.

A section of Bessette’s garage was taken over by soap box construction. The aroma of new paint hung in the air and odd wood pieces are tossed in piles. Atop one pile is the critical rule book and a road atlas-sized instruction book on building the racer.

These days, everything is done according to stringent specifications in an attempt to make the race more even-handed.

″Some kids may have a dad that’s an IBM engeiner while other kids might have a dad that doesn’t have that experience,″ Bessette said.

Erik and Travis can recite those rules and guidelines as easily as their address. They know a car in their division can’t weigh more than 206 pounds with one type of wheel, can’t be longer than 80 inches and can’t be less than 13 inches wide.

The wooden contraptions aren’t exactly furnished with fuel injection and front disc brakes. Gravity is the force that propels the cars down the selected hill while the brake is a piece of rubber bolted to a stick of wood that drops out of the floor like a trap door and drags along the ground.

Derby cars have come a long way from the boxy models that once dotted the soap box circuit. The Holcombs’ cars looked like short kayaks with wheels. The front of each car has a rounded nose - like submarines and raindrops - to cut down on air drag, the two boys said.

″You can get fooled too,″ Bessette warned. ″Sometimes a shoebox will clean house.″

But the basic tenets of the race haven’t really changed, even though the cars have, said Harley Burger, of the Green Mountain Council Boy Scouts of America Inc., an organizer of the Vermont rally.

″They ran down a hill then, they run down a hill now,″ Burger said. ″The winner went to Akron then, the winner goes now.″

Bessette took the experience of being a soap box racer and built on it. He owns a garage and has worked as a member of a pit crew for professional stock car racers.

And this year, he raced at the derby in an oversized car designed for adults. He said it was tough to scrunch down into a little ball and fit into the car, but it all came back to him. He beat a fellow Vermonter, Norman Turcotte.

″I won a race at the derby,″ Bessette said with glee. ″Boy that was really exciting. It really made my day.″

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