Soapbox derby revisited 50 years later
On Aug. 26, 1951, two boys sat in their soapbox cars at Robinson and Mountain streets awaiting the final heat of the third annual Sagebrush Derby. Carson City youngsters Ernest Odermatt, Norman Scoggin, Larry Sullivan and Tom Sawyer had already been eliminated in the final heats.
Left were Alan Ross of Reno and Jimmy Mann of Smith Valley, vying for the grand prize in a best-out-of-three finale. A newspaper article from the Aug. 28, 1950, edition of the Nevada Appeal said, “The track on West Robinson Street was fairly cool and a moderately large crowd was assembled to see the small cars in competition.”
The Sagebrush Derby was a big deal for Carson City. Sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and local merchants, the race was kicked off by a parade in which members from the Nevada National Guard, Carson City Sheriff’s Department and Carson City Fire Department joined the 54 entries. The contestant’s little homemade cars – with each boy at the wheel – were tied together and towed down Main Street.
At the end of the day after countless elimination matches, Ross and Mann were left sitting at the top of the street waiting for the gun. Ross had already won the first match.
“The gun went off and that was it,” Ross said Sunday from his home in Reno, 50 years after his big win. “I don’t remember much, I just know that I did it.”
Norman Scoggin remembers a little bit more about that particular race, except to whom he lost. A gentle reminder Sunday brought back the pain.
“I’m going to get him for that!” he said laughing. “I forgot about him beating me.”
Scoggin said he and Ross, along with Harlin Elges, another committed derbyist, were in the same fraternity at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Both men, age 65 now, went on to be educators, with Scoggins retiring as administrator of Carson High School and Ross retiring from the music and history departments of Hug High School in 1994.
Ross said the 1950 derby was his last. He is pretty sure he got an award of some sort, and vaguely remembers the car on top looking more like a hot rod than a soapbox.
“I won a bicycle in that one. Second place was a rifle and a fishing rod and I would have much rather had that,” he said. In all, Ross snagged three bikes in his three years on the local soapbox derby circuit. He never won a rifle or a fishing rod.
“Given my hobbies now, I hunt and fish; those would have been great prizes.” Ross doesn’t boast about beating all the Carson boys on their home turf.
“Well yeah, I beat them, but they came to Reno and ran our races here too,” he said. Since that fateful summer of his 14th birthday, Ross has logged a lot of miles, but aside from a stint in the U.S. Navy, he has never left Northern Nevada. He has since acquired a wife, Jan, and raised two children, son David, 33, a teacher himself at Hug High, and daughter Suzy, 35, an administrator for United Airlines in Chicago.
Scoggin is also still in Northern Nevada, living in the hills of North Carson with his wife, Lee, two houses away from Harlin Elges.
His children are grown as well. Bret, 37, is a business owner and Coert, 36, is a pilot with the rank of major in the U.S. Air Force.
Scoggin has more than just memories from that race. “My prize was a camp kit and, you know what, I still have it,” he said.
Yet, no matter how many years have passed since the beating, Scoggin wasn’t above trash talking about the boy who stole the Carson title that year.
“He just got lucky that year,” he said.