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.

This past weekend, a record 483 competitors participated in the 67th All-American Soap Box Derby; the contest is obviously thriving these days. Still, some remember Jimmy Gronen and his uncle as the people who tarnished it way back when. But honest historians have determined that the truth was far more complex.

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.

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."

When it came time to take responsibility for the derby scandal, among the Langes the notion of blame was a confusing one. For example, when the idea of installing the magnet was raised, Gronen says that, while it wasn't his idea, he didn't object, either. "I don't recall having any qualms," he says. But, he adds, "it was overpowering. My uncle, Bob Lange, was an overpowering figure." As a result, Gronen says from a vantage point of three decades, it's hard to know how much say he really had in the matter.

"To my uncle, it was more a technical issue than a moral one. Bob passed away three years ago. He was never really able to face it. He was a really gung-ho entrepreneur; he wasn't a reflective man. I think he felt really bad for me, but also felt it was a really corrupt environment. It was easy for him to rationalize. My grandfather was the only one who talked about it to me. He said, 'It's a wholesome thing to be busted in an act of dishonesty.' But he died shortly after the derby."

With the uproar over the scandal fizzling out, Gronen returned to school that fall. He says that far from being ostracized, he was treated well. Indeed, several of his teachers told him they thought what he did was great.

Morally, the response was perplexing, and Gronen himself seems to have struggled with the ambivalence. He recalls an incident that symbolized the ambiguity he felt: "I went to a small private school in the mountains. I had a really far-out algebra teacher who also taught religion. Every spring he told his class to design and put on a boat race in a local irrigation ditch. It had to do with design, but it also taught us to take responsibility for the event.

"When it came time to write the rules -- e.g., no batteries, no engines -- everyone wanted to detail all the things you couldn't do. I became extremely annoyed. I'd been through the race process; I knew how corruption occurs. So I said, 'Let's just write a paragraph explaining the spirit of the race, then have three judges decide whether entries qualify.' Listing every way to cheat encourages people to think of ways to go through the cracks."

Gronen says his classmates overruled him. So to make his point, he found a fifty-foot rubber band and made what was in effect a huge slingshot. His boat won the race easily.

"I didn't cheat," he points out. "I actually played within the rules. I was demonstrating to them the folly" of trying to anticipate all the ways people might cheat.

Toward the end of high school, Gronen says, he began exploring the notion of spirituality, mostly through Eastern mystic religions. Studying them soon became the central part of his life. "I was so focused on my spiritual pursuits that I didn't develop a career, per se," he says. "I finished high school and college; I've worked a number of jobs. But I've spent most of my life in monastic life, seeking truth. My real passion has been the study of dharma. It's just a big quest."

Gronen says he stayed attached to Boulder because of the Naropa Institute. But he also spends time in Iowa, where, he says, he helped found a non-profit institute called Four Mounds. The institute revolves around a 54-acre plot of land donated to the city of Dubuque by one of Gronen's relatives.

According to its website, Four Mounds features a program called Y.E.S., or Youth Empowerment Services, described as "alternative intervention services for children and adolescents ages 14 to 17 who are in need of direction, support, mentoring and the growth of self-esteem."

The description is familiar, and the connection seems obvious. But Gronen is not prepared to say he pursued a life of spiritual inquiry and do-gooding to atone for his derby sins. "I'm sure the scandal affected my life," he says. "I'm not exactly clear how, though. Did I go into religion and spirituality because of this? I don't know."

He continues: "The scandal overall was a real blessing to me. I'm sorry that it happened, but I think there was a benefit to it."

"There are two motivations for seeking the truth. One, to escape pain. And two, a love of the truth itself. I share both of these motives."

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.