The Mission Soapbox Derby revival

The soapbox derby president shares his thoughts on the future of the event, and why he thinks Mission has kept bringing it back from the dead

The Mission Soapbox Derby has risen from the dead once again, and will be heading to a hill near Hatzic Elementary on July 6 this year. 📷 Mission Soapbox Derby Association/Facebook

This story first appeared in the July 5 edition of the Fraser Valley Current newsletter. Subscribe for free to get Fraser Valley news in your email every weekday morning.

It’s not often a kid pushing four-feet-tall gets plunked in a car, trusted with a steering wheel, and told to drive downhill as fast as they can.

On Saturday, July 6, dozens of Mission kids will climb into colourfully decorated cars for a time-honoured tradition: a gravity-powered street race. Still years from being allowed to drive legally, some of the children will be unsure about barrelling down a steep hill in a wooden vehicle held together by nails. But by the time they get to the bottom of the hill, they’ll likely be grinning ear to ear.

“When they come out for registration, [the kids say] ‘No, I don't want to do that,’” Mission Soapbox Derby Association president Joe Del Grosso says. “Then you put them in a car and they’ve got big smiles, right? Because they get to drive a car at seven years old.”

Del Grosso might be the president of the group that organizes Mission’s long-running Soapbox Derby, but he’s never raced a soapbox car himself. He first came to Mission in 2016, and saw the derby for the first time a year later. Struck by how exciting it was for the kids, Del Grosso first volunteered last year with a group trying to revive an event that hadn’t been held since 2018.

It wasn’t the first time the derby had been brought back from the dead. The race started in 1946, as part of Mission’s Strawberry Festival. Eventually, the derby became more popular than the strawberries, and the festival rearranged itself to focus exclusively on soapbox racing. 

But in 1974, the derby became a victim of its own success. Without the financial support of the Strawberry Festival, and a lack of local interest due to the drive for more competitive races, the derby shut down. It was 25 years later by a group eager to relive the heyday of kid’s racing in the community. 

After its starts and stops, Del Grosso hopes the derby can grow again. Last year, 23 kids raced down Draper Street in Mission. This year, 44 kids are registered, and Del Grosso hopes it will only get bigger.

FVC: What intrigued you most when you saw the Mission race for the first time with your grandson in 2017?

Joe Del Grosso: A bunch of young kids are able to race cars downhill, and you didn’t have to be an expert at it. All you basically got in the car is a little bit of training that they do before the child goes down the hill. And I thought it'd be a cool thing to maybe build a car one day as well. 

FVC: How do you feel about the Mission Soapbox Derby having come back, and being part of that resurgence?

Del Grosso: I feel fantastic about it. But I'm only one part of the puzzle. There's a whole committee that we put together to keep it going. And without the committee and volunteers and the kids, there's basically no race. And sponsors. Our sponsors are fantastic for this year.

Attendees at past soapbox racing derbies may have noticed that the cars are often plastered with sponsorship labels, just like at a real race track. Although some of the cars are made by racers—Del Grosso said three kids bring their own soapbox racers—most are provided by the Mission Soapbox Derby Association.

FVC: Where do you get the cars that you guys are providing?

Del Grosso: The cars that we have, they've built them over the years. They've also had them donated from different people that raced, and their kids, so they don't need the cars now.

We go through a complete safety check, make sure everything's okay before we run them. So it's not just: get a car, go ahead, go for a ride. You’ve got to check the brakes and all the safeties and make sure that there's a double tie-offs on all the cabling systems. Same with steering. They can only steer, I believe, 12 degrees so you cannot crank the wheel and flip the car. Can you go off track, yeah, but then you'll run into the side roadblocks.

FVC: I noticed in pictures of years past, you guys have an awful lot of hay bales kind of lining everything.

Del Grosso: The hay bales have been replaced by piping. We have actual piping that we assemble, we take out to the track. We started that last year—that was donated by a sponsor last year. We assemble them all on race day and take them all apart when it's all over.

FVC: Now that the Mission Soapbox Derby has started again, it sounds like interest is really continuing to grow for it.

Del Grosso: That's what we're hoping, right? Because eventually, if we can get it big enough, we can run more races than just one weekend. Because the Soapbox Derby was part of the Strawberry Festival, and that was 1946 to 1974. And then it was a 25-year gap. And back then, they actually drew about 20,000 people to the race. It was reconstructed in downtown in 1999, and moved to Stave Lake Street until 2018.

FVC: Why do you think people in Mission are so keen to keep this race going? They've brought it back from the dead multiple times.

Del Grosso: I think because it's not a lot of cost to come to the event for the kids. This year, we're charging $40. But in that $40 you get a t-shirt, they get a medal, they get a goodie bag, which consists of a put-together puzzle and a few other items in it. Plus, there's a chance at winning a bicycle that they don't know about. And the whole weekend, the whole family can come out and check it out. So it's not restricted just to the racers, right? It's a fun day, right, for a little cost. 

The event probably cost us about $20,000 to put it on, roughly. This year is probably, by the time we wind up, going to be $17,000 to $20,000. Because insurance has gone up. Everything's gone up.

FVC: So for the racers who are participating this year, generally what age range do you find most of them are in?

Del Grosso: The majority of them are probably seven to nine this year. Then there’s 10 to 12. In 13 to 15, we probably got a half a dozen. And the rest is the younger crowd—like, a huge group. This year, we opened it up to seven-year-olds; it used to be eight. So we opened it up from seven to 15 to try and draw more kids as well. And it seemed to work. 

But also I think it's probably worked well because we had more exposure. We did a lot of barbecues in front of different retail stores, went to different events, and had more exposure. We hope to continue to do more exposure. 

FVC: The last question that I'd like to end with is: what are you most excited for at this year's event?

Del Grosso: The smiling faces coming down the hill.

This story first appeared in the July 5 edition of the Fraser Valley Current newsletter. Subscribe for free to get Fraser Valley news in your email every weekday morning.


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