When Joe Lunn’s uncle suggested he compete in the Columbus soap box derby in 1952, he thought there was no way he could win the local competition.
He was just an 11-year-old country boy from Thomasville, Ga., he said in a recent interview with the Ledger-Enquirer.
But Lunn won the Columbus derby with a rough-hewn, wooden contraption that cost less than $10, and then traveled by bus with his mother and a Ledger reporter to the All American Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio.
There he won the world junior speed title after crashing into a retaining wall just past the finish line during the first heat of the competition. With his car falling apart and his chest bleeding, he just wouldn’t quit, according to historians.
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Since then, Lunn —dubbed “the Ramblin Wreck from Georgia” —has been considered a soap box racing legend.
Now, 65 years later, a group called Let’s Grow (STEAM)X wants to revive the local soap box derby tradition, which existed in Columbus well into the 1990s.
Organizers will hold their first competition July 29, from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Lake Bottom Park.
Robbie Branscomb, who co-founded Let’s Grow (STEAM)X with partners Leshan Ferguson and Tashee Singleton., said the program began with training clinics in partnership with the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department. There children learned about the history of soap box derbies, rules and regulations, and safety procedures.
About 250 children participated in the training, Branscomb said. Twenty-four are now registered and qualified to compete locally for cash prizes —$300 for first place, $200 for second, and $100 for third.
Let’s Grow (STEAM)X aims to reach youths of various backgrounds, including those with limited financial resources, she explained.
“Typically, soap box derby has been a family activity, where families go out and purchase cars for their children and they enter them into a soap box derby race in their area,” she said. “What we were able to identify very quickly was that, with the cars starting at $700, almost $800 per car, it wasn’t going to be an activity that every child could participate in if it required the parents to purchase it.”
So the organization purchased a fleet of cars with the help of donors, and then invited children in the community to help build them as sweat equity.
“And, in helping us build the cars, they could use our cars to race in, whether it’s our local race or whether it’s surrounding races,” Branscomb said. “The goal is to try to qualify to get to Akron. In order to qualify, you have to have a car.”
The derby will have 12 cars for children, plus two for adults. And some organizations are considering competing against one another.
“That’s a way to bring exposure to the event and turn it into a real community camaraderie-type of activity, where you can have some fun,” she said. “We’re all about igniting youth imagination and helping them to develop a love for life-long learning.”
Twenty-seven organizations are co-sponsoring the event, according to information provided by Let’s Grow (STEAM)X. The list includes Columbus Parks and Recreation, Muscogee Marshal’s Office, Fountain City Classic, Columbus State University, Columbus Technical College, Midtown, Inc., Liberty Utilities and Uptown, Inc.
On Thursday, Chester Jackson of East Coast Body Shop was still painting some of the cars.
Branscomb said the organization is looking for more volunteers and donations.
“We are in need of about 2,700 feet of polymerized vinyl chloride piping for our track.” she said. “The PVC piping helps to ensure the safety of racers and spectators and keeps the cars from major damage by preventing collisions with roadway curb.”
Lunn said he remembers the day he won the world competition with his car falling apart.
“I was, of course, stunned and still a little in shock from trauma from the crash,” he said, reflecting on his victory 65 years ago. “We went back that evening and they presented me with a four-year scholarship and all the trophies that I had won.
“And that evening, Harvey Firestone Jr. (of tire and rubber fame) called me and said, ‘Get ready to go with me on my private plane to New York City first thing in the morning. ... And so my first plane ride was on his private plane to New York, where we were lodged in the Waldorf Astoria.”
Lunn said he’s not a scholar and never went to college. Instead, he joined the Navy and traveled the world by submarine.
For years, he cherished memorabilia from his derby experience, but lost many of the items in 1989, during Hurricane Hugo.
Jeff Iula served as the general manager of the All American Soap Box Derby in Akron for 35 years, and he is currently the historian. He invited Lunn back to the event in 1979, along with other champions, and they became friends.
“He really was the legend of the soap box derby because of him being a very poor boy from the back hills of Georgia, spending time with his uncle in Columbus and building this car so he could race in the Columbus race, and little did they know that he would win the darn thing.”
Iula said Lunn’s mother had to borrow money so they could take the bus to Akron. His story appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal and Life magazine, and it was a real tearjerker. The car he drove is still at a derby museum in Akron.
Iula said he’s glad Columbus is reviving the derby tradition. And he hopes Lunn’s legacy won’t be forgotten.
To see Lunn’s 1952 victory, go here: http://bit.ly/2uU2JyK