Reliving a Derby dream

Gwen Chamberlain
Bill McElwee (center) brought his soap box derby car to Elm Street last week to stage this photo with others who raced derby cars, and their supporter, Ed Worden (right). From left are Alan Gotshall, Dave Hollowell, McElwee, Bill Decker and Worden.

Bill McElwee couldn’t get the wood slats on his Soap Box Derby car to curve the right way, so he took a piece of tin and fabricated the kind of curve he wanted on the front of his car.

In 1952, that’s the way a 14-year-old boy in Penn Yan solved the problem he faced as he built a car to race against other youngsters from around the region in a major event in Rochester.

The car he built — complete with the improvised tin fender, the faded blue steering wheel and wheels that looked like something borrowed from an old garden wheel barrow or perhaps a little brother’s favorite wagon — will be on display this weekend in Rochester at a celebration of 50 years of Soap Box Derby racing in the region.

When McElwee learned about the Greater Rochester Soap Box Derby celebration, he didn’t hesitate to offer to take his well-preserved car to put on display.

But he was puzzled how there could be a 50 year celebration now, when he first raced in 1952 — nearly 56 years ago. The races started in 1934 and continued until 1975, stopping for two years during World War II. Two men brought them back to the Rochester area in 1995.

The Soap Box Derby indoor rally will be held this weekend at the Main Street Armory in Rochester.

But before heading to the big city with his home-made car again, McElwee wanted to stage a gathering to reminisce about those simpler days, when scores of youngsters, with encouragement from a shop teacher like Mr. Campney, could build a race car from scratch, put a silly-looking helmet on his head and swoop down a hill with dreams of a winning trophy fluttering in the airstream behind him.

McElwee brought his car, untouched since he raced it so many years ago, to Elm Street last week to stage a photo similar to one that was taken there — in front of Jolley Chevrolet — in 1952. In those days, Chevrolet dealers like Jolly were involved in the derby system. Chevrolet furnished the axles and height and cockpit specifications.

Ed Worden, who owned the dealership in those days, encouraged the boys to build their cars and he loaded them, two decks deep on the back of his stake truck. Then off they went to the city, where they faced competition from youngsters with a few more resources who had the kind of slick, kit-built cars that left young Bill and his friends in the dust.

None of the boys from Penn Yan placed well in the competition. But Mr. Worden loaded the cars back on the truck and the group headed back to Penn Yan, with just one stop to make along the way — Roseland Park.

“It was a fun day,” said Worden as he looked over some of the photographs McElwee and his friends brought to McCredy Chevrolet last week for the brief gathering with fellow racers Bill Decker, Alan Gotshall and David Hollowell.

Sometimes, remembering one good day can make another one to remember as well.

McElwee and Worden remember the 1952 cars and drivers as they look at old photographs.