Wednesday, May 02, 2018

I thought I'd posted about this before, the great soap box derby cheating scandal of 1973

 Jimmy Gronen was dozing in front of the TV 40 years ago when he heard the words that shook his young world.

Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, appeared and said, ‘Well, ladies and gentlemen, there is one boy in America unhappier than Richard Nixon this evening, and it’s little Jimmy Gronen,’ 

Bob Lange Jr., won the 1972 event, and for 1973, Lange’s cousin Jimmy Gronen drove a car that was visually identical to Lange’s.

Gronen won the 1973 event, but was stripped of the title two days later. Officials had already replaced Gronen’s wheels and tires after they were seen to be chemically treated to reduce rolling resistance.

Suspicious derby officials carted Gronen’s vehicle to what was then the Goodyear Airdock for X-rays, then held a news conference at which they sliced the car apart for dramatic effect.

But X-ray examination showed that Gronen’s car also had an electromagnet in the nose, which was attracted to the steel paddle used to start the race; it allowed Gronen to get a jump on the competition. In the end, second-place finisher Bret Yarborough was named the 1973 champion, and Gronen’s uncle and legal guardian Robert Lange Sr., paid a $2,000 fine to settle the charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

“Is nothing sacred any more? Is there no area of American life beyond taint?” inquired a plaintive Time Magazine.

“It’s like discovering that your Ivory Snow girl has made a blue movie,” Akron prosecutor Stephen Gabalac said at the time.

Gronen was in the midst of his own crisis. His father had died, his mother was hospitalized at the Mayo Clinic, his brother was living on the West Coast and he was staying in Boulder, Colo., with his uncle, ski boot manufacturer Robert Lange, and his family.

Derby racing was huge with Lange. His son, Bobby, had won the championship the previous year. The senior Lange was eager to repeat the victory with his nephew.

"The Soap Box Derby wasn’t my thing. It was never my thing,” Gronen said, he built his own car, implanted an electromagnet in the nose of his racer on the advice of his uncle. When he pressed his head back into the headrest, wiring connected to the magnet gave him a little boost past the steel starting gate.

The scandal causing electromagnet car is back on public display as part of the All-American Soap Box Derby Hall of Fame and Museum at Derby Downs, a work-in-progress soap box derby shrine whose ultimate goal is to display every single Soap Box Derby national champion dating to 1934 -- even the cheater car.

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