Close your eyes and recall the most dramatic events of 1973. The Watergate scandal was heating up. An oil embargo saw prices jump 200%, causing national worry and an economic recession. And Billie Jean King dueled Bobby Riggs on the tennis court in what was dubbed “The Battle of The Sexes” (which King won handily).
But perhaps the most dramatic, the most memorable, the most controversial event of all featured an 14-year-old boy, a magnet, and a soap box racer.
OK, that might be an exaggeration … but it’s hardly a stretch to say that Jimmy Gronen and the All-American Soap Box Derby became the focus of a nation in August of 1973. It even caught the attention of broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite, who said, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, there is one boy in America unhappier than Richard Nixon this evening, and it’s little Jimmy Gronen.”
That’s because Gronen initially won the coveted race only to be disqualified when an illegal electromagnet was discovered in his car, causing widespread outrage at the perceived lack of morals in what was supposed to be a wholesome bit of Americana.
In 1973, the All-American Soap Box Derby was celebrating its 36th year in Akron, Ohio, as one of the premier youth gravity races in the country, according to Carol Biliczky of the Akron Beacon Journal.
What Americans didn’t fully know, or didn’t care about at the time, was that Gronen had faced a series of misfortunes: his father’s death, his mother’s hospitalization and his separation from his brother.
Because of those circumstances, Gronen was living in Boulder, Colorado, with his uncle Robert Lange, one of the founders of a successful high-end ski and boot company. It just so happened that Lange’s son Bobby had won the Soap Box Derby the year before, in 1972, and the elder Lange was eager to be part of another winning entry.
Lange helped devise an electromagnetic system featuring a magnet in the fiberglass nose of the car that was connected to wiring and a battery pack hidden behind Gronen’s seat. When Gronen pushed his head back into the headrest, it triggered a charge into the magnet and gave the derby car a not-so-subtle boost at the start of the race.
Observers, and race officials, noticed the unnatural looking start of the race by Gronen’s car and found the magnetic system upon investigating the car post-race.
What ensued was universal condemnation of Gronen and outrage at an innocent-seeming competition being scandalized by a greedy win-at-all costs mentality.
Gronen claimed he reluctantly agreed to go along with the plan, while Lange admitted to his role and was eventually ordered to pay $2,000 to the Boys Club of Boulder, as well as being banned from derby races for two years.
Gronen lost the $7,500 college scholarship and was asked to return the trophy and silk jacket he had been presented after the race. According to Biliczky, he refused.
Gronen and Lange claimed that cheating was actually rampant in those days, and that theirs was but one indiscretion amid a deeper sea of disingenuous soap box derby competitive shenanigans.
In 2003, his story was put into a book called Champions, Cheaters and Childhood Dreams: Memories of the Soap Box Derby, written by a former Beacon Journal business reporter. The book features some of Gronen’s claims about widespread cheating in derby racing.
Fairly or unfairly, history will associate Jimmy Gronen with the infamous 1973 race. His life since then has been spent largely secluded from public view — according to Biliczky, some of which included time in a monastery.
Forty-six years later, a soap box derby gone awry sounds almost quaint, and perhaps it is. But it’s also a reminder that the first headline is often the most important one, and that some competitors believe winning is everything — no matter the route.