Spoilsports of the century


“It was like learning the Ivory Soap girl made a blue movie,” moaned Ohio prosecutor Stephen Gabalac at the time of the 1973 Soap Box Derby fix. “It’s like seeing apple pie, mother hood, and the American flag grinding to a halt.”

Let’s excuse the mixed metaphors; some people take loss of innocence rather hard. In this case, 14-year-old Jimmy Gronen of Boul der, Colorado, had to forfeit first place and a $7500 scholarship, when postrace X-rays disclosed that his cart had been electronically rigged. The famous Akron event’s rules allowed for little more than a box on wheels, but Gronen’s souped-up special contained a hidden electromagnetic setup designed to give the car added pull when the steel starting gate swung open.

Entrants were supposed to build their own cars, but an investigation revealed Robert Lange, the boy’s millionaire uncle, as the brains behind the scam. Lange reportedly spent some $22,000 on the vehicle (rules limited construction expenses to $75) and even went so far as to have it aerodynamically tested in a UCLA wind tunnel.

In a letter to race officials, Lange, while admitting his role, claimed that Derby fraud was so widespread as to make it “next to impossible for any boy or girl to build a racer that can win.” An unsympathetic Colorado judge convicted Lange of two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, saying that the uncle “owes a tremendous apology to the young people of this country.” (For his part, Gronen refused to return the trophy.)

Follow-up reports to the incident indicated that the creative Gronen and Lange weren’t the first to seek a winning edge at the race. Earlier, cruder methods involved lead shoes, bags of quarters, an anvil, even a concealed bowling ball that the driver would release at the start of a race, sending it from the seat down to the car’s nose.