Prince George’s love of “bugs”

By Alyssa Tobin | Curator At The Exploration Place
February 20, 2019 - 10:17am
 Local Cheese Box Derby Race contestants gather at the start line on 7th Avenue in 1952
Local Cheese Box Derby Race contestants gather at the start line on 7th Avenue in 1952 Photo Credit: Exploration Place

Locally the sport of racing “bugs” has been one of the bygone days. Multitudes of colourful cars constructed by young men ready to race whilst surrounded by excited spectators, this is a nostalgic memory for our city.

Previously known as the greatest amateur racing event in the world, soapbox racing has been seeing a resurgence across the country. Rumour has it that Prince George may also be bringing it back.

For over 20 years in Prince George, Soapbox Racing was an exciting event open to all interested boys between the ages of 10 and 15, held during local May Day Celebrations.

An introduction to the STEAM movement so popular today, soapbox racing was created for the purpose of giving boys something practical, interesting and mind-building to do. The race in Prince George was meant to absorb the participants’ time, keeping them off the streets and out of trouble.

Each year the rules were the same, every car was to be youth-built and had to fit specific specifications to be entered. These stipulations included height, width and weight including the driver. Practically all phases of construction were regulated by rules including the fact that the frame must be made from wood and that the car must have a break operated by a foot pedal.

Keeping overall weight in mind was of vital importance. Drivers wanted to be as close to the 250-pound limit as possible so the lighter the driver, the heavier you would want to make your car.

Beginning May 24th1950 as the “Cheese Box Derby Race” the local race began as a sponsored initiative by the Elks Lodge 122. A total of 11 boys entered cars that first year and raced them down Connaught Hill.

The streamlined bugs reached speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, not with gas, but with innovative design and the science of gravity. Although there were no sounds of the powerful engines the race was said to still have the thrills and spills of the big-time speedway, giving spectators alike real excitement.

With over 300 spectators that the first year, the winner of Prince George’s first Cheese-box Derby was Fred Wilkes who won the ultimate prize of an all-expenses-paid return trip to the official Western Canada Soapbox Derby Race held in Mission City, BC.

The winner of Mission City race was able to move on to the All-American Soapbox Derby Championships in Akron, Ohio. The big event held in Akron was featured over television, radio, and moving picture newsreels. If you were skilled enough to become the International winner, you would receive a four-year scholarship awarded by General Motors.

Following that first race in 1950, the race continued to grow and without incident. That was until 1956. According to BC rules, a boy was not allowed to enter a race without a helmet and that year Prince George organizers couldn’t find enough anywhere in the province.

Facing the threat of cancellation, local organizers eventually called the famous BC Lions Football Team. The Lions were said to have saved the day by lending enough football helmets to outfit all the young competitors of Prince George that year.

Over the full 20 years of racing in Prince George, the location of the race changed several times. These racetracks included 7th Avenue, Rose Avenue in South Fort George, 15th Avenue and Edmonton Street (referred to by many as Soap Box Hill) and later, the Carney Street Track.

As many good things eventually come to an end, the same can be said about soapbox racing in Prince George. The derby in Prince George held its final race in 1973 due to lack of interest by boys who were said to be finding more interesting things to do. That same year Mission City held its final race.

If you are interested in learning more about local soapbox racing come check out The Exploration Place’s small exhibit on soapbox racing featuring car blueprints, trophies and even Jim Bartlett’s famous “Gundy’s News” racer.

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