There's no better way to learn about history than to speak to someone who can provide a first-hand account. The history of the Keystone Rally Association is no different, and
who better to provide these details than one of the founding members. In 2008, Mr. John Stead gave this detailed account of the early years of soap box derby racing
and the creation of the Keystone Rally Association.
In the early 70's there were very few soap box derby rallies held in eastern Pennsylvania. One of the main reasons that rallies were unpopular is attributable
to an All-American rule that stated that if you participated in any other soap box derby race, you were no longer eligible to race in an All-American
race. This rule prevented many areas from running "Wildcat Rallies" as they were known at that time. In was very common for those people, who were willing to take the
risk of participating in these events, to use a fictitious name to protect their identity to maintain their eligibility to race in the local All-American race. At
these early rallies, drivers were allowed to run their own wheels (run-what-you-brung). Races were single elimination and there was no wheel or lane swaps. Every
participant was only guaranteed one trip down the hill. The winner of the heat was chosen by a panel of three judges (no timers or photos). The winner moved on and the loser
was out. This was the normal racing protocol back then. These races were commonly referred to as "wheel races".
For the reader's benefit, a wheel race, at that time, was run in the following manner. If a car had, at ANY TIME, passed All-American construction rules it was considered legal
and was allowed to compete. No attempts were ever made to calibrate the lanes, it was a single elimination type race and to make it even more interesting there were
the dreaded "Home Town Judges". Races typically featured between 20-25 cars. Back in those days, there were no divisions, however there were many different shapes and sizes that
raced against each other. As you walked through the pits it was common to see some people using propane torches to heat up their bearings, other people packing their
wheels in dry ice and others had their wheels soaking in "chemicals" in small containers. If you were fortunate enough to win a race, at the next race your wheels might
have to go through a hoop to measure their diameter and also pass a durometer test. If the rubber on your wheels were found to be either too hard or too soft, they
would fail and could not be used for that race. We found it hard to believe that it was only a coincidence that the people involved in running the race would be able
to pass all of these tests. Though we had what we considered to be a competitive car and did very well at these races it was sad to see other fine cars losing to cars
that were bigger than boxcars but had "The Wheels." For all of the above reasons it became painfully aware to us that for the derby to grow, it would need to make massive
changes. After Chevy dropped their sponsorship with the All-American, locals were then allowed to run rallies, eliminating the contestant's fear of losing their eligibility
if they raced in any other non-All-American race.
In 1974, only 2 races were held in our area; Coopersburg, which was a "wheel race" and Lower Bucks, which held the first 2-wheel swap, double elimination
race in the state of Pennsylvania. This new racing format was greatly appreciated by the 32 entrants and their families who now knew that they had a chance to win the race.
The race was held in the town of Hulmeville, which had a very unique hill (long gone). The run-out area had the same slope as the racing side of the hill. The drivers were told
not to use their brakes but rather let their cars continue to the top of the run-out hill. The cars were placed at the side of the run-out hill and at the end of each heat,
with a little push, the drivers drove their cars back to the starting ramps. Everyone thought this was a great idea and both the car handlers and the drivers enjoyed running the
race this way. In my 40 years of derby racing, this was the easiest car return system that I ever saw. We didn't appreciate it at the time, but that one race in Lower Bucks
would help to change the entire way that derby races would be run in the future. Not because of the car return system but rather the 2-wheel swap, double elimination
format ensured a much more fair race than any "wheel race".
In the fall of 1975, the rallies were held in several new race cities as the popularity of soap box derby racing was on the rise. There was a definite improvement over how
the races were previously run which also attracted more people to the sport. At this time, Don Nixon instituted a wheel bank program with a random, 2-wheel swap. With this major
step, the "wheel race" era had finally come to an end. With the wheel advantage removed, the race directors were quickly confronted by other methods used by racers to gain an
advantage over their opponent (give them credit, derby people are a very creative group). For example, people were hanging the noses of their cars on the paddles to try to get
an advantage when the paddles dropped (eventual solution - car handlers were instructed to roll their cars back off the paddles), others would spin their wheels until they were in ramp at which time they would scrub the wheels (spin them without lifting the car) all
in an attempt to heat up the bearings and the rubber (eventual solution - no spinning your wheels after the swap and no touching your wheels in the ramps). This showed that
more effort was required to standardize the racing program.
During the winter of 1975, a small group of dedicated derby enthusiasts consisting of Bob Ellenberger from Harrisburg, Don Nixon from Zionsville, Jim Adams from Allentown, John Burns
from Dover, Griff Jones from Phillipsburg and myself met to try to create a fair and consistent racing program for everyone. At this meeting it was decided that all races for the
upcoming season were to be double elimination, lanes calibrated to the fast part of the hill, use Nixon's wheel bank, 2-wheel swap, standard heat chart and a standard point
system used to award "Keystone points" to entrants. John Burns was elected the first chairman of the newly formed Keystone Rally Association. This was not as easy to do as it
sounds. The directors had to go back to their organizations and sell the program. They ran into stiff opposition from their local leaders who were happy to keep the status quo. Arguments
against the proposed Keystone racing format ranged from concerns that it would take too long to run with this race format to questions regarding the necessity of a wheel bank
system. Those early proponents of the Keystone format deserve a lot of credit for making this all possible.
When we started the Keystone Rally Association our sole aim was to have as fair of a racing program as possible for everyone. Little did we know, or realize, what a huge
impact this philosophy would have on the overall soap box derby program. For many, it came to be known as the "Golden Age" of soap box derby racing. With a fair format established,
people could focus more time on innovative car designs and construction techniques (back in those days, car were made from thin boards (sticks) that were glued together, shaped and
coated in fiberglass). It is unfortunate, that over time these innovations and the people behind them may be forgotten but what they helped to accomplish will never be lost.
An example of this is Nick Fischer who was as dedicated to soap box derby as any person could be. Nick lived in Lewisburg, NC and every week, whether for
a spring or fall rally, would drive to Trenton, NJ to pick up his daughter, Dawn, and his son, Andy, and drive to the race. During the race, he would always volunteer
to drive the return vehicles. After the race, he would make the return trip to Trenton and then back to Lewisburg. He did this for many, many years. Every tool or jig
that Nick utilized was made from wood including the famous "Fischer Gauge" which nearly everybody nationwide uses to measure axle deflection. In addition to a busy race
schedule, he was the editor of the Keystone News for 10 years. This newsletter, which was published 10 times per year, contained rally results, placings, helpful hints on
construction and write ups by various drivers on how their cars were built. To this day, this newsletter still holds the record as the longest, continuous running soap box
derby newsletter in the country.
The first Keystone Rally races were held in the fall of 1976. Races were held in Allentown, Lower Bucks, Phillipsburg, Harrisburg and York. This was also the first year that racing was
divided into two division; junior and senior (it wouldn't be until 1995 that the current three divisions were implemented). As with any new
program, there were some problems during the racing season, however we accomplished several of the major goals that we set for the program. We had a wheel bank
with a random 2-wheel swap, races were double elimination and we calibrated the lanes. Lane calibration is not that important by today's standards as the advent of electronic timers
and lane swaps have made this obsolete, however at the time it was imperative to calibrate the lanes to ensure a fair race. Lanes were calibrated by taking two cars of equal quality, driven
by two seasoned drivers, and having them each drive the fast part of the lanes. They would do this several times to determine an average win in a lane. They would then swap lanes, but not wheels,
and repeat this process until the same car won by an equal amount, regardless of the which lane they drove. The ramps were adjusted were adjusted to accomplish this task. This was the standard practice
until the timer/photo swap method became common practice. It was not unusual to stop the race at the end of a round and recalibrate the lanes. This could, and did, happen several times throughout the day at some of the
races. With the winner of the heat being declared after one phase, having equal lanes was of paramount importance. The first Keystone Rally Champions were Jeff Evans from
Lehigh Valley in the Senior Division and in the Junior Division, we had a tie with Beth Sullivan and Tim Brown both of Lower Bucks sharing the honor.
In order to continue with the Keystone format, we needed the support of the people and the rally directors. After the first season, it was evident that everyone appreciated
this format by their encouragement for us to continue with the program. In 1977, the participation in our rallies had increased so dramatically that many of the rallies had to put a
restriction on the amount of entrants they would allow. It was normal for a race to run over 100 cars. At the end of the year, Keystone placed the top 9 in each division
and including ties, gave 21 trophies to these racers and gave additional trophies to those that raced in the required amount of races. The Keystone Rally Champions that
year were Donna Manderacchi of Conshohocken in the Junior Division and Becky Walters of Lower Bucks claiming the title in the Senior Division.
Due to the huge turnout in the previous year, all of the 1978 races were pre-registered by spring time and those who did not reply quickly enough would have to go on a standby
list. During this year, three rallies limited their entries to 96, Lower Bucks cut theirs off at 64 per division and Emmaus held the largest rally ever recorded with a total of 152
entrants. Improvements continued to be made with Don Nixon still running the wheel bank and for the first time a finish line photo of each heat was used at some of the
rallies. Our champions that year were Alan Straiton of Danbury, CT in the Junior Division and Jeanine Myers of Conshohocken in the Senior Division. It should be noted that
we had entrants from New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Delaware and Pennsylvania. They had come because the word had spread that
the Keystone rallies were the fairest racing program in the area.
In 1979, finish line photos were used at all of the rallies. This eliminated the task of having 3 people judge the winner of each heat. In order to offset the cost of the photos,
the loser of the heat had the "first option" of buying the picture. George Rodenbaugh, the current Chairman of Regional Directors for the All-American, often jokes about how he bought
all the pictures showing his car losing the heat and he ended up with a wall full of pictures, but he said he put his foot down and absolutely refused to buy those heats where he lost
and his car didn't even appear in the picture. He said, "I do have some dignity left". As time went on he had fewer and fewer "first options" on pictures.
Lane widths were generally limited to the painted white lines on the road, which in some cases was not a safe racing condition. At some races they would put a 3" masking tape down the sides of the lanes. This required
"Lane Judges" whose responsibility was to make certain that all drivers remained on the inside of the lines. As you can imagine, this created many problems because
if the lane judges said the driver went beyond the lines, the parents and drivers would naturally disagree. This issue was resolved by using cones or flags to control the width
of the lanes and it quickly became apparent to one and all that hitting a cone or a flag would slow you down, and in many cases that would be enough for you to lose the heat. The Keystone
Champions of 1979 were Mark Sheffer of York in the Junior Division and Matt Wolfgang of Lehigh Valley in the Senior Division.
In 1980, we were still using the finish line photo system for most of the rallies. At the Allentown race, we decided that when we reached the top eight places of each division, they would
then complete the race in the first photo swap race in the area. Using this photo swap method, drivers swapped lanes and wheels. This required each lane to have a series of
measured distances marked off by tape. The officials would then determine the winner by the overall differences shown in the two photos. This was a defining moment for the Keystone Rallies because
at the next rally, we were able to run the entire race by the photo swap system. This would be the first race in the area entirely run with a photo swap. Though this was a major break through in
creating racing fairness, it was not without its problems. On occasion, a photo would not come out and the heat would have to be re-run. This would cost the race a lot of time and with the large
amount of entrants, this was extremely critical. Over the course of this season, over 220 entrants participated in the rallies. The Keystone Champs for this year were Matt Wolfgang of Lehigh Valley
in the Junior Division and Jeff Madison of Lower Bucks in the Senior Division. The final race of the season was held in Kutztown and after the race, a buffet was held after which the Keystone Awards
were given. This would be the beginning of the annual Keystone Picnic.
In 1981, the photo swap system was standard at all of the Keystone races. This meant that each driver was guaranteed a minimum of 4 times down the hill (rather than 2 under the previous system)
and the true winner of each heat could be determined. It required more time to run the race and as a result, some of the rallies would have to limit the amount of entries in their race. The electronic timer system
designed and built by Bob Sheetz of Lower Bucks was used at several of the rallies in conjunction with the photo swap system. It was proven that the electronic timer would give the results
faster and was far more efficient. This would allow each rally to eliminate the costs of the photos, which had become very expensive. The electronic timer had proven its reliability
and would be the way all future races would be run. The Keystone picnic was held in Allentown and our champions were Anne Louise Rodenbaugh of Lower Bucks in the Senior Division and
Chad Phillips of Lehigh Valley in the Junior Division.
Final note on the Keystone Rallies
This has been a brief recap of the early years of the Keystone Rallies. It was not always an easy road and mistakes were made. It was a journey that everyone should be proud
to say that they were a part of and they helped make the Keystone Rallies the most successful rally organization in the country.
Thanks John for an excellent account of the early days of soap box derby racing and the Keystone Rally Association. If any one would like to add to John's statements, please e-mail the webmaster at the address below.
For more a brief recap of all of the Keystone years, check out the Keystone Time Line