“Car number 4 wins, Pete, that’s car number 4!” declared Ben Kaufman into his walkie talkie. “Pete” was Kaufman’s Phi Delta Theta fraternity brother, Peter DiLeo, who needed that information to keep track of the brackets for 16 cars in a double-elimination soap box derby held Saturday morning.
To organize the ALS fundraising event on the South University Avenue hill just east of the Phi Delta Theta house, the University of Michigan fraternity had joined with Ann Arbor Active Against ALS [A2A3] a local nonprofit that launched last November.
The mechanics of the fundraising effort were laid out for The Chronicle by the captain of a pirate-boat car, Cameron Kortes. It cost $25 to race a car of your own construction, $75 if you wanted Phi Delta Theta or A2A3 to build a car for you to race, or $100 to have a car both built and raced for you. Kortes said that for this inaugural year of the race, the emphasis was not on raising as much money as possible, but rather to establish it as an event that would attract the interest of the community as well as members of the fraternity internally.
That was a sentiment echoed by Kaufman. It was hard to generate enthusiasm for something like a walk-a-thon, he said – something the fraternity had tried before. The soap box derby was a new approach.
What wasn’t new was the focus by Phi Delta Theta on fundraising for ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). That’s a common fundraising goal across Phi Delta Theta chapters. As Kortes explained, “Lou Gehrig was a Phi.”
Kaufman said this year the soap box derby was timed during Greek Week at the University of Michigan, which consists of student-run philanthropic activities running this year from March 23-31. And next year, Kaufman said, they hope to more fully integrate the derby into Greek Week with the goal of attracting the interest of other fraternities and sororities to participate in the derby.
Several people at the event mentioned the possibility of a different venue next year. Later in the day, The Chronicle bumped into city attorney Stephen Postema outside the Michigan Theater, and he said he recalled from his youth a different venue for a soap box derby in Ann Arbor: the hill on South Main Street running past Pioneer High School, ending at Stadium and Main by the Michigan football stadium.
The races on Saturday had a minor glitch at the beginning. The steepness of the starting ramps was sending the cars crashing a bit too heavily onto the street surface of the hill. (A photo of the ramps was Twittered to us by a Chronicle reader.) The ramps were not constructed by Phi Delta Theta member Carl Stanhope, who’s currently enrolled in UM’s College of Literature, Science & the Arts, but is taking engineering courses and will be transferring to the School of Engineering soon. His fraternity brother, Cameron Kortes, reported it was an unnamed music major who had built the ramps, and who endured some mild teasing in his absence. Aside from their steepness, the ramps appeared to be solidly constructed.
The ramps were quickly abandoned in favor of a push-start, and that method proved to work smoothly for the rest of the afternoon. The pattern would be repeated through the brackets.
A2A3 organizer David Lowenschuss would call out the start through his megaphone, “On your mark, get set, go!”
The cars would get a steady push from a designated pusher.
A crowd of exuberant kids would give chase down the hill after the cars.
Phi Delta Theta brothers at the base of the hill with a line of straw bales, acted as “catchers” to help slow down the cars. The cars got carried back to the top of the hill.
The speeds weren’t terribly fast, but for young drivers, the intervention of the “catchers” helped ensure safety. Three-year-old Alex Enrique piloted his car straight into a hay bale and sustained a busted lip, but it was quickly treated in the form of a piece of gum offered by a friend of his. Participants are required to sign waivers.
Also helping to enforce safety is the requirement that helmets be worn. Or two helmets, if you like. On Saturday, Max Showalter, grandson of Elmer Spreitzer, had duct-taped on top of his own helmet Spreitzer’s soap box derby helmet from the 1950 Cleveland derby, a year he won two races before being eliminated.
Spreitzer’s daughter, Gretchen, is married to Bob Schoeni, whose diagnosis with ALS last year led to the launching of A2A3.
Showing The Chronicle a photograph from 1950 of himself in a soap box derby car, Spreitzer summed up the photograph and the day’s race: “Everybody was young once.”