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Derby Dreams

The New Orleans Recreation Department Soap Box Derby

Proud parents congratulate their 14-year-old son, Louis Bently Jr., following his win of the 1952 NORD-Item-Chevrolet Soap Box Derby. Photo courtesy of the New Orleans Public Library.

In 1950, the first New Orleans Recreation Department Soap Box Derby was held, and over the course of its more-than-22-year run, it was one of the most popular and largest NORD events each summer. Although it started as a daytime event, in ’55, the race was moved to the early evening.

NORD held weekly building clinics in the months before the race to give the boys pointers, but the actual construction had to be done by the boys themselves – with no help from parents. In 1951, the “All-American official soap box derby wheel” assembly kits were available for $10.95 at B.F. Goodrich on Carondelet Street. 

Various companies sponsored the derby over the years: most notably local Chevrolet companies, The New Orleans Item and WDSU-TV. The race was held on various overpasses throughout the city, including the South Broad Overpass, the Franklin Avenue Overpass and the Wisner Boulevard Overpass.

Between 100 and 140 contestants participated in the yearly race with up to 12,000 spectators. Winners would receive the opportunity to travel to and compete in the All-American Soap Box Derby held in Akron, Ohio, as well as toolkits from local sponsors, savings bonds and other prizes.

Leading up to the race were other events, including parades down Canal Street; full-color previews and race coverage on television; a practice race; the crowning of a derby queen; and final inspections the evening before.

Another big draw for the derby was the celebrity races. In 1950, Commissioner (and future mayor) Victor H. Schiro defeated Representative T. Hale Boggs. The following year, Schiro again came out victorious, this time over Mayor Chep Morrison. Four years later, in ’55, Mayor Morrison again competed against Schiro, this time emerging as the victor.

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