Get local news delivered straight to your phone

The map showed Constitution Avenue as the site of Saturday’s Washington Soap Box Derby, but Bernie LaFrance spent most of the day on Memory Lane. And boy, what a crowded thoroughfare that was.

LaFrance served as crew chief for his son Joshua’s racing team. He handled all the administrative and financial duties to get the 12-year-old entered and, like most Derby dads, probably supplied almost all the elbow grease needed to get the car ready to run.

Not that he minded the workload.

The Derby day duties are, judging by all the smiles, labors of love for the elder LaFrance and the other paternal crew chiefs. Pretty much everything Joshua will see this day, Bernie saw through his own eyes some years back. Like most Derby dads.

“This is a very satisfying event,” LaFrance says, looking out from the tarpaulin he’s erected in the middle of Constitution Avenue to serve as a temporary garage and to shield Team LaFrance from the summer sun.

LaFrance, 32, grew up in the Maryland suburbs, and in 1975 and ’76 he entered a car of his own in the Washington Soap Box Derby. At that time, the annual race was held on Eastern Avenue and Varnum Street NE.

“Whenever I start to talk to him about it, Josh always tells me that I raced in ‘the olden days,’” LaFrance laughs.

But he still likes talking to the boy about his Derby career. About how positive the whole experience was, even though he failed to win a single heat in two years of racing. And how the Derby really, really helped

prepare him

for adulthood.

We can't make City Paper without you

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

“I’m a machinist now [at the University of Maryland], and it was during the four months that it took me to build my car that I decided I really wanted to be a machinist when I grew up,” he says. “I also tell him I learned all sorts of corny things, about the importance of patience, about perseverance, about sportsmanship. All the things that you’re supposed to get out of something like this. My car was lousy, really lousy, but I still got so much out of just being a part of it.”

Other Derby dads expressed much the same message to their young’uns while preparing for race day. Bill Tenan says the experience has to be earned.

Tenan, a Maine native now residing in Clifton, Va., hammered home to 12-year-old son Shaun just how hard Dad had to work to raise the funds—all $25—for a Soap Box racer for the 1962 Derby in Brewer, Maine. Then he made his progeny hustle for $360—the sticker price on ’97 models.

“I had to go out to all the local businesses and ask them for help, and I got it,” says Tenan. “Out of that experience, I learned how to sell myself to others, and that’s a lesson, an important lesson, that I wanted my son to learn. So I took him around to businesses in Fairfax, and he, by himself, sold the people there on the idea of sponsoring his car, and that’s how he paid for his own car. This was a great thing to pass on.”

There are a dwindling number of pastimes that dads still pass on to their kids in contemporary culture. Throw out Little League baseball, and the Derby is about the only perennial like-father-like-son game that quickly comes to mind.

The Derby, now a national competition for kids 16 and under, started as a local race for homemade wooden cars that ran in Dayton, Ohio, in 1934. Saturday’s race, one of several regional contests held around the country this month, was the 56th rendition of the D.C. event, which was moved from Varnum Street to Capitol Hill seven years ago after Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) got Congress to approve the use of Constitution Avenue as a raceway.

The federal government played a huge part in the Derby almost from the start. Just two years after the inaugural race, the Works Progress Administration saw to it that a permanent track, Derby Downs, was built after the event was moved to Akron, and to this day the rubber capital hosts the national championships each August.

(The D.C. Derby could use some more federal involvement. Last year, racers traveled down the two westbound lanes of Constitution Avenue, but organizers shifted the action to the other side of the street Saturday because of—what else?—potholes.)

Anachronistic as the whole thing seems, dads like LaFrance ensure that the Soap Box Derby endures. Some signs of societal shift were in evidence Saturday: As with Little League and corporate board rooms, girls are now allowed in, and 13 of the 41 cars entered had distaff drivers. Someday, when Derby girls grow up to be Derby moms, there will be female pit bosses. But the gender-based exclusion wasn’t lifted until the late 1970s, so all the older wrench-turners on Constitution Avenue Saturday, even for cars piloted by girls, were men. More specifically, men who’d raced themselves back in the day: Along with the LaFrance and Tenan teams, there was the crew of eventual champion Tara Tomasello, headed by father Ken Tomasello, a 1969 entrant of the D.C. Derby; Tina Hamm of Fort Washington, a third-generation D.C. Derby participant, took expert instructions from grandfather Wilbert Hamm. And so on.

Technology also showed its face. Cars are now fiberglass, not wood. And the Internet is loaded with tricks on how to improve your race times, just in case Dad didn’t tell you. (Mainly, heat up wheel bearings when judges aren’t looking, steer the car toward the higher edge of your lane right out of the starting gate, then gradually veer to the middle as you go downhill, and duck your head down as low as safety allows to reduce drag.) Two participants even had their own web sites, which obviously isn’t a hand-me-down.

But despite the social and technological tweakings, the Derby still comes off as the same hyper-wholesome endeavor LaFrance and other veterans remembered from their youth. Bill Rogers, a retired test pilot who grew up in Bethesda and now lives in Oakton, hadn’t attended a race since 1952, when he reigned as a five-time champion of the D.C. event. But watching Saturday’s goings on from the Constitution Avenue curb, Rogers became convinced it’s a good thing the Derby has survived his 44-year absence.

“You get a real positive feeling about our future walking around here today, don’t you?” asks Rogers. “This race really helped shape me, and I hope it does the same for these kids. But I think this might be another of those chicken-or-egg things: Have good kids always come to this race? Or has this race always made kids good?”

Either way, race on.—Dave McKenna