Flint brings back its historic Soap Box Derby, with a little push from Volkswagen Group of America

As the cradle of the American automobile industry, Flint, Mich., has always been a playground for four-wheeled innovation. In the boom times of 1936, the town held its first Soap Box Derby for children and adults to home-build their own gravity-powered racers. Thousands of fans and even the occasional national political leader would attend the events, which were held until 1995.

Since then, a lack of resources has kept the event on hiatus – until this summer, when Volkswagen Group of America helped bring Flint’s Soap Box Derby back to life, with a dozen cars running for glory in early June.

Shane Schmitt, an employee of Volkswagen Group of America (VWGoA) in Auburn Hills, Mich., saw a chance for the company to not just sponsor a race, but promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education while reviving a fun tradition for Flint.

“Audi and Volkswagen’s involvement in this unique race was an exciting opportunity,” said Schmitt. “The race, and what it sought to teach the kids, aligned with our core beliefs as a company. Our involvement was much appreciated by the organizers of the event, and it was a wonderful chance to reach out to the community of Flint.”

If you’ve never seen a soap box race, the whole idea of putting a “soap box” on wheels can be a bit misleading. Like real race cars, soap-box cars must be built to a set of rules for weight and design. Even though they’re only powered by gravity, they can reach 30 mph on typical-length tracks.

Volkswagen Group of America was a “Super Stock” level sponsor of the race, which funded the purchase of two derby cars as well as the transportation of the winning car and driver to the All-American Soap Box Derby World Championships in Akron, Ohio.

Thanks to the sponsorship, local middle school students in Flint were able to participate in every aspect of the vehicle assembly process. Students had the opportunity to collaboratively build the derby cars, learn about vehicle assembly in a hands-on environment, work through pre-race inspections, and participate in the race as either a driver or pit crew member.

To help the students with the build process, employees from Audi quality tech service and Volkswagen sales and marketing came together to work on the design of the derby cars and the vehicle’s display decals. Other VWGoA employees volunteered at pre-race build workshops. After building was complete, two cars were entered in the Flint Soap Box Derby—one branded Volkswagen, and one branded Audi.

The Volkswagen vehicle took home second place and Audi placed eighth. All told, 38 kids took part in the derby experience, and the winning car went on to compete at the national level in mid-July, bringing a bit of automotive history back to Flint.