The race that meant more near Duluth's Hartley Nature Center

Photo by Lauren Lundeen: Soap box derby racer, Dale Mell, donated his car to the Hartley Nature Center where it sits up in the rafters.

By Lauren Lundeen

On July 13, 1963, a 12-year old Harold “Bo” Conrad put on his helmet and got inside his racecar. He lowered his head into his car just enough to see over the top of the car. Then, he waited. This was Conrad’s fifth race of the day.

Hundreds of people lined the full length of the Hartley Park track in Woodland. Each person cheering on their favorite riders, everyone was cheering.

Conrad and his opponent’s car were placed on a starting ramp. A man standing between the cars held a bar that would start the race. The bar was connected to the stand each racecar was placed on. As soon as he dropped it the cars started rolling down the track.

“When they dropped the thing to start the race, you literally can hear your ball bearings. It’s silence,” Conrad said in a telephone interview from his home in Braham, Minn. “You can start to hear your car start to roll out, and you can’t hear the crowd because your head is ducked down.”

Going 30 mph, Conrad had a photo finish. He won by half a car length.

About 50 boys between the ages of 11 and 15 raced that day, but it was Conrad who won it all. After winning in Duluth, he was off to race in the All-American Soap Box Derby (AASBD) in Akron, Ohio.

On race day in Akron with about 75,000 people watching, Conrad got ready for his biggest race of the day.

Conrad put his helmet on and lowered himself into his car. He was ready to start the race. Going up to 40 mph, Conrad beat out his two other opponents. He won by four inches.

That day there were 239 boys racing from all over the United States. Conrad became Duluth’s first champion.

Upon his arrival home, Conrad was praised for being the “hero of Duluth,” according to a 1963 Duluth News Tribune article. That day all of Duluth lined Superior Street. A parade was held in his honor.

“It was like I won the world championship in Duluth,” he said.

Conrad may have been a champion, but winning the race had its downside.

“Once you won in those days, you couldn’t race anymore. Even if you won the local race in Duluth,” he said. “I got to go to Akron, but that was the end of it. So I was kind of done then at the age of 12.” Today, Conrad is a retired rural mail carrier and continues to play in a jug band he started in college.

Conrad may have been the big winner of 1963, but another life was affected by the soap box derby racing the following year in Duluth.

A 14-year-old Dale Mell was in the same position as Conrad. He raced down that Hartley Park track in 1964 and won.

Mell lost to Conrad in 1963, but in 1964 he got the chance to go on to race in Akron. He didn’t win there, but like Conrad, he left with more than just a racing memory.

“Building the cars there were a lot of construction techniques, mechanical things that you learned by doing it. It was a great training experience,” Mell said, who is now a retired industry worker.

Today, Mell’s car lives on in the rafters of the Hartley Nature Center. This is the only memorabilia Duluth has of the races that took place.

Loss of interest shut down the derby in Duluth. The track is now overgrown with wildlife and is barely visible a few feet behind the center.

What many don’t know is that it once brought all of Duluth together, and like Mell, Conrad is thinking about donating his winning trophy to Duluth.

“They have a hall of fame in Akron. I would rather give it to the city of Duluth if they’re going to do something with it,” Conrad said.

“It was so interesting to learn about the soap box derby, but there’s only just a car on a shelf,” he added. “It’s more than just a car on a shelf.”

In the heyday of soap box derbies, teens and pre-teens raced their home-made cars in local and national competitions.  Their gravity-powered vehicles propelled them to victory and the celebrity status that comes with it.

Video courtesy of Bo Conrad

Video editing by Lauren Lundeen

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