Tonawanda News

January 18, 2014

Kenmore man builds duplicate '39 Soap Box Derby car

Kenmore man builds duplicate '39 Soap Box Derby car

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — In 1939, Peter Giarraffa of Kenmore, then 13-years-old, designed and built a soapbox derby car for the gigantic Soap Box Derby race on Best Street in Buffalo.

The Soap Box Derby, a youth car racing program, has been run in the United States since 1934. World championship finals still take place in Akron, Ohio.

However, this year, Giarraffa jokes, he will not be competing with his car, a handmade duplicate of his original car. 

“Cars today are built from kits,” Giarraffa said. “Mine was designed by me, using a thick plank for the bottom board, a seat of roller bearing wagon wheels, a homemade steering mechanism and a body crafted of canvas tacked to narrow wood strips. The steering wheel came from a wooden buggy,” he laughed.

“I’m proud of what I did,” he added.

In 1939, union carpenters built the wooden starting ramp on Best Street next to the 106th Armory. That same year, the rules were changed and ball bearing wheels and axles were no longer acceptable.

“So I was eliminated in the first heat,” Giarraffa said.

However, in 1940, Giarraffa replaced the wheels and raced inside the Civic Stadium on Best Street where he won his first heat, but a second-place finish eliminated him in the next heat. 

The car was later stored in the attic of his sister’s house. In 1985, he took the car to a Soap Box Derby Exhibition in Amherst.

Through that connection, Giarraffa found out that The Smith Collection Museum of American Speed in Lincoln, Neb. was interested in buying his old racer. He agreed to sell it for $200, although he never met the buyer.

The vintage car is still there and Giarraffa hopes his “new” car will join its predecessor. Because he now lives in an apartment and has no room to build a car, he joined the Town of Tonawanda Senior Center and works two days a week in the wood shop.

“The canvas on the original car looks like elephant hide after all these years,” Giarraffa noted, pointing out the new canvas on his car. 

The car, the same size as the original, has a bottom board, seat, upholstery on the doors, wooden steering wheel and wheels that are comparable to the original.

On his 80th birthday his niece, Valerie Maxwell of Syracuse, contacted the museum and took the whole family on a trip to Nebraska.

“I met the mayor of Lincoln (Neb.) and receive updates from the museum,” he explained.

His niece also gave him a scrapbook of photos and articles which he treasures.

As for now, a group of former Soap Box Derby enthusiasts meet and hope to start a club which would bring interest in the Derby and start it up again in Buffalo.

“We’d like to reach out to those who had cars or are interested in the Soap Box Derby from years ago,” he explained. “We’d like to see as much interest in the Soap Box Derby race as there was in the 30s and 40s,” he said.

Anyone interested in joining the group may call Giarraffa at 835-3772.