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soap-box

When I was still young and impressionable, and before I grew “too big for my britches”, my parents drew from a vast arsenal of educational tools to point me in the right direction. Some of their favorite tools were the “truths” that all of us have heard from time to time.

“Leave that alone, you don’t know where it’s been.”

“Eat your spinach and you’ll grow up big and strong.”

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

“You have to wait 30 minutes after eating before you go swimming.”

And who could forget the one they sprang on you a little later in your development:

“Stop it or you’ll go blind.”

I was never too concerned about where these truths came from or how factual they were. However, after hearing them throughout my childhood, they must have made an impression because when I had kids of my own, I found myself using some of the old favorites.

The one in particular that my dad threw around with impunity, and the one I also deemed worthy of passing along was “You only get out what you put in”. I thought about this one often during the four years I raced in the Soap Box Derby. My first attempt at building a racer was understandably crude. I tried my best to follow the instructions from the manual and I went to all of the “how to build a racer” meetings, but my finished product still left something to be desired. My first sponsor was the Tolland Auto Body Shop and I’ll always remember how supportive those rough and ready mechanics were. They paid my entry fees and popped for my official wheels and axles, helmet and t-shirt. Then they put the finishing touches on my racer with a slick paint job, complete with graphics and “Tolland Auto Body” boldly emblazoned on both sides. Incredibly, I actually won a heat that first year and took home a three-speed bike. I was hooked. With all the practice on the hill and the actual racing itself, I gained a lot of experience that I was able to apply in my next three years. But one of life’s experiences that I learned was that the race wasn’t completely fair. You see, the hill was made up of three lanes. Before each heat, three drivers would each stick their hands into a covered box containing billiard balls labeled 1, 2 and 3. Whatever ball you pulled out was your lane for the race. Trouble was, the lanes weren’t perfectly equal. Lane 1 was the fast lane, lane 2 was pretty good, but lane 3 was definitely the slowest lane. You couldn’t tell with the naked eye, but every driver knew the truth as well as most observers on race day. It didn’t take a genius to notice that a lot of crummy racers in lane 1 were beating sleek racers in lane 3. So I concluded that I would have to build a better racer, one that was so good that I could beat anyone, even if I got stuck with lane 3.

My second racer was a marked improvement over the first. I had a new sponsor, the East Hartford Aircraft Credit Union, and they remained my sponsor for the remainder of my racing career. I had good results in my second year but got edged deep in the competition by a friend of mine who also had a pretty good car. I wondered if my racer was actually faster than his and the results might have been different if I hadn’t had the bad luck to draw lane 3 in that heat. So I went back to the drawing board and spent weeks and weeks putting everything I had learned into building a third racer. This was the car to end all cars, and I still have it stored in my garage today. It was beautiful. I raced it in my third and fourth years of eligibility, coming in second both times. You guessed it, my luck didn’t change as I drew the cursed lane 3 in both finals. So close but no cigar.

My friends in the know sometimes asked me if I was bitter about the results. They had witnessed the effort that went into my building those racers, only to be undone by an uneven playing field. I always told them that I felt I had the fastest car, but strangely, I never felt gypped. After all, no one planned to make those lanes unequal and no one controlled our selection of the billiard balls. I felt good about everything, and I really loved building those racers. So what if the vagaries of life derailed my ultimate goal. The effort itself made me a better person. I learned a valuable lesson early in life that trying hard was a reward in itself. Sometimes everything falls into place and sometimes it doesn’t, but if you put the right stuff in, you can live with the results, no matter what they are.