Canandaigua-born Ken Ross became a legendary soapbox derby racer who persevered and overcame such incredible odds that he was able to compete in the biggest competition of all: the great American race.
Not long after World War II, Ken’s brother Raymond read an article in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle about the reinstatement of the Soap Box Derby. He sent away for an instruction manual. Since Raymond was wheelchair bound, he urged Ken to build the car. They both knew that obtaining instructions would be the easy part. Trying to keep the project from their father’s knowledge would present a challenge. Consequently, it was at night and in a chicken coop on a remote part of the farm that Ken worked on the car.
With only $7.32, Ken couldn’t rely on his savings to obtain the appropriate parts, so he began by rummaging through a neighboring junkyard, where he found an oversized steering wheel. When he needed wood, he turned to his father’s stack of two-by-fours, but realized immediately that they were off-limits. Ken continued his search and eventually ended up one night on Route 96, where he found a billboard that retained its structure without a couple of its two-by-fours. He used them for axles.
Ken finished building the car, but he still had to make some final touches. To side the car, he used linoleum scraps from Leo Hessney’s store. He also found some surplus red paint, known in the railroad town as “caboose red.” (It was the same paint used by railroad workers for their garages.)
Finally, he painted a black diamond on the car to symbolize the great passenger train of the Lehigh Valley.
One of Ken’s older brothers strapped the soapbox racer to the top of the family car and traveled to Irondequoit. There, 25-year-old Ken competed in a race that took only 30 seconds. It was a short race, but one that Ken will always remember.
The story of Ken Ross goes beyond soapbox derby racing. When he was younger, he earned 8 cents a day delivering mail for Manchester postmaster Andy Ryan. As a teenager, he worked as a “gandy dancer,”maintaining tracks for the Lehigh Valley Railroad. After he graduated from high school in 1948, he served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. Afterward, he attended Clarkson University and graduated with honors in 1956. He became a dedicated employee of Alcoa and a successful family man.
Ken Ross is a man to whom posterity can look for hope and inspiration, just as he did to his father, an immigrant who was known for his large mustache, the operator of the “Big Hook.”
Soap Box Derby: An American Tradition
When an Ohio newspaper reporter named Myron Scott covered a race of cars built by boys in his home community, he was so impressed that he acquired a copyright for the idea. He developed the program on a national scale, and the first All-American Soap Box Derby was held in Dayton in 1934. In 1935, the race was moved to Akron to take advantage of the city’s hilly terrain and central location, and a permanent track was built there as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project the following year.
The competition starts at the local level, according to the All-American Soap Box Derby website (www.aasbd.org). Local champions from three divisions – stock, super stock and masters – travel to Akron in August to compete for scholarships and merchandise prizes. Except during World War II, the race has hosted kids each year from throughout the U.S. and several foreign countries.
The stock division is designed for the first-time builder. Boys and girls, ages 8 through 13, compete in simplified, “lean-forward style” cars. The super stock division, for ages 10 through 17, lets competitors expand their knowledge by building a more advanced car. Kits and shells for both of these beginner levels are available from AASBD.
The masters division offers boys and girls, ages 10 through 17, the chance to build an advanced class of racer that encourages creativity and individual design skills. The cars are built using AASBD’s Scottie Masters Kit that includes a fiberglass body.
The Soap Box Derby program teaches kids the basic skills of workmanship, the spirit of competition and fair play, and the perseverance to continue a project once it has begun. Races have always been family-oriented events involving children and adults who work together to prepare the cars for racing.
Locally, Soap Box Derby races may be experiencing a resurgence. In May, the Auburn Citizen covered a race held on the newly paved stretch of Genesee Street in front of Hoopes Park. More than 40 kids competed. After a 24-year hiatus, the Auburn race was revived eight years ago and since then the number of racers has increased each year. As the article reported, the kids loved it. “It was a lot of fun,” said Tyler Jirinec, age 11, who worked with his grandfather, Darryl, to get his ride ready. “I like the competitive feeling and going down the hill pretty fast.”
For more information on the All-American Soap Box Derby, including how to get started, official rules, and ordering kits and parts, visit www.aasbd.org.
by Tim Munn
Legends, Landmarks and Locals is the fourth book by historian Tim Munn. Using over 300 photographs and dozens of interviews, Munn offers a rare glimpse of Ontario County by uncovering the stories of its people and places. The book includes a surname index with over 1,000 names. It is available from the Ontario County Historical Society in Canandaigua, www.OCHS.org.