July 15, 1961: First Soap Box Derby race held in Hartley Park

On this day in Duluth in 1961, the first Soap Box Derby race was held at Duluth’s Derby Downs, built within Hartley Park. Duluth’s first All-American Soap Box Derby, described as a “coaster wagon race for boys,” took place in July 1947 at Lemon Drop Hill, a portion of London Road between Twenty-sixth and Thirtieth Avenues East where the Lemon Drop restaurant was located. Increased traffic soon made London Road too busy and dangerous for the race, so in 1961 the Duluth Derby Track Committee (made up of Jaycee members and other interested citizens) raised funds to build a dedicated track. The Jaycees leased land on the north side of Hartley Park, and volunteers built a track 20 feet wide and 960 feet long. Twelve-year-old Timmy Morrison won all four of his heats, becoming the fifteenth Duluth champion and the first ever at Derby Downs. His car, sponsored by the American Steel and Wire Division of U. S. Steel, was just fast enough to edge out Dave Mell’s car, winning the final heat by “less than a wheel’s length.” Before taking on Mell, Morrison had defeated Tom Emerson, Henry Thomson, and Mark Sertich. Morrison’s mother was overcome with joy, telling reporters “ I just can’t believe it, it’s fantastic” as she brushed “the tears from her eyes.” Like all regional winners, Timmy then travelled to Akron, Ohio, in August to compete in the national trials. He did not win, but two years later Duluthian Harold Conrad took the national title. Read about that here.

Dale Mell winning the 1964 Soap Box Derby in Duluth. Mell’s winning car is on display inside the Hartley Nature Center. (Image: Hartley Nature Center)p