Uphill Racer

Jim Gronen steers clear of his boyhood Derby scandal.

Rumors of cheating had swirled around the race for years. Long before Jimmy Gronen ever became a household name, it was common knowledge that "boy-built" was a malleable phrase. There were whispers that professional builders could be hired for the right price. Some racers even admitted that they'd done little more than watch their fathers construct their cars. So widespread was the rule-bending, in fact, that race officials routinely turned their heads away from evidence of it for fear of having to disqualify a significant portion of the field each year.

As the August race approached, Lange later explained, he worried about his nephew. He feared that throwing Jimmy into such a vipers' nest unprepared was foolish and naive. "We had done everything," Lange told a reporter. "I had Jimmy down to weight, the car balanced the way I wanted. I knew we had a fast car. But we also knew what we were up against. I had files on other cars.... So we said, 'What else can we do? How can you make a car faster? Have we done everything?'"

Eventually, the Lange team's brainstorming landed on an obviously illegal tactic. They decided to place an electromagnet in the nose of the car. Jimmy activated it by pressing his helmet back into a button installed in the headrest. When the metal gate holding the cars at the starting line fell forward, the magnetic attraction gave Jimmy's car a slight tug.

Rich Barry

Lange would later claim that he was just repeating an idea he'd heard from other drivers. In fact, he confided to Jimmy, other cars probably already had magnets in them. "We knew Jimmy would be running against all those chauffeurs in professionally built cars, and maybe other cars that had magnets, so we figured that in order to be competitive we should probably try one," one magazine quoted him as saying. "It was the only thing we could think of." In a twisted adherence to the rules, Lange insisted that Jimmy install the illegal device himself.

The small magnetic tug was enough for Jimmy to win the world championship. But his moment of glory was short-lived. He was found out almost immediately -- observers claimed to have seen the Lange car "lurch" forward -- and the uproar was deafening. Jimmy may have been doing no more than others, but his car had crossed an invisible line.

For a child's car race, the fallout was huge. As Derby officials investigated, Lange was criminally prosecuted in Boulder County by an eager young district attorney. A quarter-century before anyone had ever heard of JonBenét Ramsey, Jimmy Gronen and Robert Lange became Alex Hunter's first exposure to national publicity and fame. Ultimately, Lange agreed to pay a $2,000 "settlement" to the Boys Club of Boulder.

The story of the Soap Box Derby scandal was top-of-the-fold news for months after the race. Eventually, of course, it all died down. Perhaps out of respect for his tender age -- and no doubt due to the protection his relatives and community afforded him -- no one really bothered the teenager at the center of the scandal who'd simultaneously managed to hold the role of both the victim and the perpetrator. Jimmy Gronen soon disappeared into his own life.

I wrote to Jim (not Jimmy anymore) a few months ago. After several weeks had passed, he called me at home one evening. My caller ID showed an unfamiliar name. "I'm the Soap Box Derby guy," he said. "Sometimes I use a different name."

When I asked him what he'd been up to for the past thirty years, he replied without hesitation: "I've spent a lot of time in spiritual inquiry."

It became clear that Jim was not ready to talk about some things. He discussed the scandal openly. But he was less candid when it came to the personal details about his life. Coincidentally, he'd been forced to confront his past when an author from Ohio decided to write a book about the Soap Box Derby. Gronen had agreed to talk to her about his cheating, and in some ways it had been cathartic.

"It was a really peaceful experience," he says. "It had been an issue that I hadn't addressed in a long time." He found, however, that the memories were still surprisingly fresh.

Following the derby, Gronen traveled to Minnesota to visit his mother at the Mayo Clinic. It was there, while sitting in his hotel room, that he heard Walter Cronkite mention his name. "Well, ladies and gentlemen, there's one little boy in America unhappier than Richard Nixon this evening," Cronkite said. "And it's little Jimmy Gronen, who cheated in the Soap Box Derby."

To escape the media circus, Gronen was quickly whisked away to an isolated family vacation spot in Northern Wisconsin, a fishing lodge accessible only by boat. He remembers reporters staking out the lake. Although derby officials demanded that Gronen return his championship trophy, he decided not to. Instead, he says, he sawed it up with a hacksaw and threw it into the lake.

That seemed symbolic of what happened within Gronen's family, as well. At home, he says, the subject of the dirty derby seemed to disappear like a crazy aunt exiled to the attic, leaving Gronen alone with his thoughts. "It was a funny time," Gronen recalls. "I really didn't have any support. I basically had to bear the brunt of this, at the age of fourteen."

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