Flint, MI—The Flint Soap Box Derby will return to Chevy Commons this Saturday, June 4 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I can’t believe the energy and excitement in the room,” said Kevin Cronin, Executive Director of the Flint Soap Box Derby, during one of the organization’s final building workshops ahead of this weekend’s race day. “There’s something really unique and magical there.”

The Soap Box Derby, a youth racing program in which unpowered cars rely on gravity to move, began in the 1930s.

Flint’s first race took place in 1936 on Cadillac Street, but later moved to Cronin Derby Downs, a soapbox racing venue near Southwestern Academy that was built by former Mayor Donald Cronin, Kevin Cronin’s grandfather.

“Me and my grandfather were exceptionally close,” Cronin said of why he came back to Flint to reboot the city’s Soap Box Derby. “Anytime he’d be doing something around the city or the community, he made sure to bring me along. He always talked about the Soap Box Derby.”

Cronin said he remembered seeing his uncle’s soapbox car in the garage and tinkering with it now and again, but there was no race in Flint by the time he would have liked to participate.

So, he decided to change that for others in 2018.

That’s when Cronin, who was living in Washington, D.C. at the time, received a grant to pull together the city’s first race in 30 years. So he returned to Flint with the goal of restarting Flint’s sanctioned race and restoring Cronin Derby Downs.

Cronin said that first race in 2019 was more successful than he could have hoped, and he’d hoped to build on that momentum prior to the pandemic.

“Now, I have a few years of pent up excitement,” Cronin said with a laugh, noting he thinks the race’s young participants do as well.

To that end, the 2022 Flint Soap Box Derby has teams from Freeman Elementary, Beecher High School, Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village, St. John Vianney School, Swartz Creek Middle School, Springview Elementary School, and a host of sponsors.

The Freeman Elementary Flint Soap Box Derby team works on their car at the Flint Soap Box Derby headquarters in Flint, Mich. on May 28, 2022. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

“It was a no-brainer for us,” said Shane Schmitt with Volkswagen/Audi, one of the Flint Soap Box Derby sponsors.

“This lines right up with our company mission to support STEM for children in the area,” he said. “It shows kids that there’s more automotive opportunities than working on the line.”

As for those kids, many were all smiles on May 28, the day of the final build workshop before Saturday’s races. They came in to see their cars newly wrapped in designs they helped create and got to weigh and test their vehicles outside the derby’s Dort Highway facility.

“It’s fun just to learn how it works and do mechanics for the first time,” said Gus Bade, 7, of why he wanted to participate this year.

Bade added that he hoped to one day be an engineer after attending Kettering University, and he was “learning a lot” from the build days ahead of the race. However, he did have one complaint about the experience.

“I’m not old enough to drive,” Bade said. (The age requirement is eight.)

“Maybe next year,” said Jill Bade, Gus’s mother, with a pat on her son’s shoulder.

The elder Bade said she wanted Gus to participate not only for the derby’s STEM education component but also so he could be a part of Flint’s Soap Box Derby legacy.

“This is such a big part of Flint history,” Bade said. “I remember driving by 69 and seeing the (soapbox racing) hill by Southwestern for all those years … I want him to be part of that culture.”

Cronin said his long term plan is to turn Flint Soap Box Derby programming into an accessible, year-round option for area children, and to bring his grandfather’s namesake track back to its full glory.

“This is our fourth year, but it’s also our second year,” Cronin said. “So we are young, we are growing. And the goal is to make sure that everybody that wants to take part is able to do so whether that’s in the city of Flint, Genesee County, Southeast Michigan… and to provide the venue to do it.”

The Flint Soap Box Derby will be held on Saturday, June 4, at Chevy Commons, with the major race—the Super Stock Division—happening from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and “fun run” races for interested community participants from 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. 

The winner of Flint’s Super Stock Division race will qualify for the 84th FirstEnergy All-American Soap Box Derby Race Week, scheduled for July 17-23 in Akron, Ohio.

Kate is Flint Beat's associate editor. She joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues....