By Douglas Feiden
The Sag Harbor Soap Box Derby evokes a fast-vanishing Middle-American idyll, conjures up the bygone atmosphere of a Norman Rockwell illustration and casts the appealing glow of nostalgia upon the modern life of the village.
But the derby isn’t only a paean to the past and a trip through a time warp. The events of Sunday, June 26, mark a celebration of community, comradeship, competition, and creativity, and they enshrine family values and the ethic of hard work.
It all begins at 1 p.m. when a troop of Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts showcase their homemade derby cars in a festive parade down Main Street. Wending their way to the crest of High Street, they then ascend a pitched starting ramp before hurtling down one of the steepest hills in Sag Harbor in a series of races.
The actual descent down the roughly 650-foot slope in each of the day’s 35 to 50 bouts typically lasts a mere 15 to 25 seconds. But as a character-building exercise and teachable moment — prefaced by long preparation and the close meshing of family, friends and fellow scouts — it can last a lifetime.
“It’s all about garage time and bonding time with families, and getting the kids out for some old-fashioned fun, and bringing the community back to a simpler time in life…and coming together as one,” said Laurie Barone-Schaefer, a Cub Scout den mother whose three sons, aged 7, 9 and 13, are all vying in this year’s derby.
“There’s nothing cyber or virtual about what we’re doing. This is about teaching the kids hands-on experiences of life. Instead of looking at a screen or playing a video game and living a virtual life, they’re building things and doing things.… And they’ll always have the excitement of these memories, of going down that great hill on High Street, and of the time the wind was going through their hair.”
Yes, the actual ride is over in a trice. But among invaluable life lessons garnered along the way, drivers learn the nuts-and-bolts of building a car; connect with parents and friends who help with assembly in a driveway or garage; grasp complex concepts of design and engineering; discern the value of pitching in to assist others; get tutored in the construction process, and explore the very nature of creativity itself.
They also also learn communications skills and cement bonds with the community: “They recorded a radio commercial for WLNG and went to Village Hall to ask permission to hold the derby,” Ms. Barone-Schaefer said. “They met business owners on Main Street and visited residents on High Street to thank them for letting them do this event.”
A tight-knit community remembers its fallen, and the Sag Harbor derby helps recall those losses. In each of the four years since its return from a long hiatus, the race has been dedicated to the memory of a village stalwart.
In 2013, its inaugural year, the honoree was Marine Lance Corporal Jordan C. Haerter, himself a former Boy Scout, who was killed in Iraq protecting his base from a suicide bomber in 2008. In 2014, the derby remembered Katy Stewart, the 12-year-old girl who died in 2010 at the age of 12 after battling a rare form of pediatric liver cancer. Her brother Robert, a Troop 455 member, competed in the race that year.
In 2015, Ralph J. Ficorelli Sr., the former chaplain and two-term commander of American Legion Chelberg-Battle Post # 388, a U.S. Army veteran who died that year, was saluted on High Street.
And this year’s derby is tipping its hat to Paul G. Hansen, the immensely popular Sag Harbor real estate agent, and an assistant Boy Scout leader, who died last August in a car accident.
The derby’s current incarnation also provides much-needed fundraising opportunities for the scouts, says Pat Witty, the scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 455.
“We have camping, backpacking, skiing, white-water rafting and rock-climbing trips that can cost thousands of dollars,” he said.
Through the sale of sponsorships — banners across High Street for the starting and finishing lines can cost $1,000 apiece and the racing cars all bear stickers from local businesses priced at around $200 — the scouts hope to reap $3,000 or $4,000, Mr. Witty said.
“We’re teaching the kids positive messages,” he added. “They’re building cars, doing things with their hands, learning teamwork —and going out and getting the sponsors.”
Competitive youth soap box car-racing programs — using unpowered vehicles that have brakes and steering but must rely solely on gravity in order to move — have been popular around the country since the first one was held at what is now Derby Downs in Akron, Ohio, in 1934.
In Sag Harbor, the tradition dates to the 1940s and 1950s and was apparently discontinued at some point in the 1960s. Due both to its pitch and the broad expanse of its roadbed, High Street was always the chosen venue.