Derby drivers get ready for big race

Monday, May 6, 2002

Clayton Hill has his pit crew for the 2002 Soap Box Derby.

Granddad John Hill Jr., a former Soap Box Derby racer, and dad Trae Hill will be in Clayton's corner when the Cape Girardeau race is held May 18.

"The Hills have changed," said 14-year-old Clayton.

That phrase was the title of a theme that earned Clayton the privilege of driving the Southeast Missourian Soap Box Derby racer.

"We held a contest to determine our driver," said Mark Kneer, director of circulation for the Southeast Missourian, who is in charge of the Southeast Missourian car. "We asked contestants to tell us in 50 words or less why they wanted to drive the Missourian racer."

Clayton got his point across in the 50 words: "In 1937 my grandpa, John Hill, Jr., raced in Cape's first Soap Box Derby."

Clayton explained he wanted to carry on this tradition and that it would mean a lot to him to race in this year's derby and to finish what his grandfather started 65 years ago.

This year's derby race will be held on Sprigg Street near Blanchard School. But John Hill Jr. raced down a different hill in 1937 -- Henderson Street adjacent to the campus of Southeast Missouri State University.

"It was a wild ride," John Hill said. "There were a bunch of young boys and a heck of a crowd on hand. We were something."

Too old to run in the next year's race, John Hill offered his car to another driver. Following that race, he put a motor on the car and drove it to and from school.

The elder Hill acknowledged that rules for the derby have become more specific.

"When I raced," he said, "you could use almost any material to build the car, and any kind of wheels as long as they rolled." Hill's racer was a sleek machine, built out of wood using small wooden slats.

Hill stretched a canvas over the entire body of the car, painted it and installed an old steering wheel from a brand new Chevy.

Soap Box Derby racing is a great thing for fathers, sons or daughters, grandfathers, the entire family, said Hill. "I'm really looking forward to this year's race."

Although the annual Soap Box Derby got its start in 1933, it wasn't until 1937 that the race came to Cape Girardeau.

The derby craze died in the area in the mid-1950s and wasn't revived until 2000.

Thirty cars are registered for this year's race.

Drivers will have an opportunity to test their racers on the track Saturday.

"We have a new timing device to clock the cars," said Denise Stewart, chairman of the derby. "We want to test the device, and we've invited all the drivers to attend the Saturday practice session for a practice round or two."

The track will be open from 9 a.m. to noon.

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