Uphill Racer

Only a handful of newsworthy memories survive from my early teens. But out of the momentous headlines of that time -- Vietnam, Watergate -- one of the clearest is of a child's contest: The Soap Box Derby scandal from the summer of 1973, 31 years ago this week.

Jimmy Gronen, the teenager at the center of it, inspired deep national speculation from chin-pullers more accustomed to declaiming on international affairs. When, they wanted to know, did our nation's morality take such a dramatic plunge? What kind of teenager could cheat at something as wholesome as a kids' car race? Later, when the uproar had died down, the few who still remembered wondered what might become of a kid who was a nationally known scoundrel, a symbol of innocence lost -- and all before high school! Could a child like that ever grow up normal?

From time to time, I wondered, too. When I finally tracked Jimmy down in Boulder a few months ago, he told me his story.

Jimmy was a small kid -- four feet, eleven inches tall -- with stringy blond hair and bright-blue eyes. His big teeth were made even more noticeable by his braces. After dieting to prepare for the race, he weighed a wispy 68 pounds.

At first glance, he seemed like the perfect kid to win something as wholesome as a Soap Box Derby. He was a native of Dubuque, Iowa, whose life had been pitted by tragedy. His father died of a stroke when Jimmy was only eight. Jimmy lived with his mother and brother and sister until his mother needed to be hospitalized for a long-term ailment. The family dissolved. If you couldn't root for Jimmy Gronen, you just weren't trying.

While his siblings were packed away to live with an aunt in New York, in 1972 Jimmy was sent to Colorado to live with another aunt and uncle. His uncle, Robert Lange, was a local character. A graduate of Harvard, Lange had developed a revolutionary line of plastic ski boots and other equipment that bore his name. In 1968 he'd situated his manufacturing plant and company headquarters in Broomfield.

Arriving at the Langes' Boulder house was like being born fully formed into Soap Box Derby royalty. Lange had raced in the Soap Box Derby as a boy. As an adult engineer, the design of the cars fascinated him. When his own son, Bobby Jr., expressed an interested in the race, Lange was thrilled, and he threw himself into the project. Later, when details of Lange's obsession became fuel for public condemnation, prosecutors would unkindly describe Jimmy's uncle as a "Soap Box Derby addict." Up until then, though, he was just another enthusiastic father.

After Bobby tried and failed to win two years running, the Langes decided to get serious. Robert Lange hadn't gotten to be a millionaire by settling for mere participation ribbons, and from that point, Bobby and his father dedicated themselves full-time to winning the national derby, no matter what the cost. Rich from his ski inventions and recently retired, Lange was the perfect man for the job.

The engineer in Lange had concluded that a wooden car built in Colorado's dry climate would absorb moisture in the more humid Akron, Ohio -- site of the championships -- so he decided his son's car should be built of fiberglass. Lange always insisted that Bobby, an experienced machine operator even as a teenager, actually constructed the vehicle himself, using Lange's manufacturing equipment.

That may have been technically true. But the elder Lange didn't leave much to chance, either. He shipped the finished vehicle to a friend who worked at the California Institute of Technology to have it tested in the university's wind tunnel. The work paid off: Bobby easily won the Boulder qualifying race and then went on to win the world championship in August 1972.

Following Bobby Jr.'s, victory, Lange declared that, with the family fantasy realized, he was done with soap box racing for good. Indeed, the newly arrived Jimmy, perhaps fearful of not being able to live up to the high standards set by his cousin, showed no interest at first in establishing a Lange-family derby dynasty.

Suddenly, however, in March 1973, Jimmy announced that he, too, would like to take a shot at soap box success. There were only three months left before the local qualifying race, so Lange found shortcuts. He decided, for instance, to use Bobby's old car mold to make Jimmy's car. Jimmy, who weighed nearly ninety pounds at the time, started a crash diet.

Jimmy lost his first heat in the Boulder race due to a mechanical failure and a minor crash. But after that, he didn't lose again. He easily defeated the 39 other local contestants. In three months, like his cousin before him, he would be in Akron, Ohio, racing for the world title.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer

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