'It was worth the wait': Female Soap Box Derby trailblazers race during Senior Day

·5 min read

In 1950, 11-year-old Julia McCoy wanted to build a car to race in the All-American Soap Box Derby. The Cuyahoga Falls resident went to buy tires for the car, but no one would sell them to her. After all, only boys were allowed to compete in the derby.

It would take another 21 years for that rule to change.

On Thursday, 72 years after her first attempt, the former Julia McCoy, now Julie Callahan, finally got the chance to race down the 989-foot track at Akron's Derby Downs.

“It was a thrill. It felt very much like I expected, which surprised me,” she said as she stood at the base of the track after her race. “It was good fun. It was worth the wait.”

More:Not just a 'boys' race': Soap Box Derby celebrates 50th anniversary of girls racing

Callahan, 84, who now lives in South Carolina, joined more than 300 other seniors to ride down the track in adult-sized derby cars Thursday during Senior Day. She raced side-by-side with her husband and Nancy Ferruccio, who was one of five girls to compete at the All-American Soap Box Derby the first year girls were eligible.

“We’re at a point where it’s Soap Box Derby time and girls are out here with derbies they’ve built,” Callahan said. “I’m grateful to have been able to see the fruits of the things that I was encouraging.”

Nancy Eichenlaub Ferruccio, left, and Julie Callahan share a laugh as the women and Julie's husband Kennon Callahan wait their turn to ride down the hill at Derby Downs during Senior Day on Thursday in Akron.
Nancy Eichenlaub Ferruccio, left, and Julie Callahan share a laugh as the women and Julie's husband Kennon Callahan wait their turn to ride down the hill at Derby Downs during Senior Day on Thursday in Akron.

A push for change

Growing up, Callahan watched her father and older brother build a derby car together and knew it was something she wanted to do too.

“I would hang around, and when they’d throw away nails that they pulled out because they’d gotten crooked, I’d go around and collect those nails,” she recalled.

“I didn't know what I was gonna do with them, but I got them off the floor. It was just one of those things that I felt drawn to.”

Rusty McCoy, right, assists his aunt Julie Callahan into her derby car as she prepares to race down the hill at Derby Downs during Senior Day on Thursday.
Rusty McCoy, right, assists his aunt Julie Callahan into her derby car as she prepares to race down the hill at Derby Downs during Senior Day on Thursday.

Mainly, Callahan wanted to build a race car.

“Being the first one down the hill was not part of my motivation,” she said. “I just wanted to build one of those cars and roll down the hill and have some fun.”

More:‘The G.O.A.T. of the Soap Box Derby’: Racer makes history with fourth victory

But, at the time, Soap Box Derby rules prohibited girls from competing, and Callahan was never able to finish building a car.

The unfairness galled Callahan and prompted her to write a letter to the Akron Beacon Journal.

“When I began getting the thing thrown up in my face that girls can’t do this, I thought, ‘That’s not fair. What can we do to change that?’”

Her letter, published in the Sunday, Aug. 6, 1950, edition of the newspaper, read:

In 1950, Julie Callahan wrote this letter to the Akron Beacon Journal about girls not being allowed to participate in the Soap Box Derby. The letter was published on Sunday, Aug. 6, 1950.
In 1950, Julie Callahan wrote this letter to the Akron Beacon Journal about girls not being allowed to participate in the Soap Box Derby. The letter was published on Sunday, Aug. 6, 1950.

“Dear Jim,

Since girls are not permitted to race in the Soap Box Derby I suggest that a Derby for girls be held. The reason for this is that many of my friends would like to build cars and race them. Boys always get to do things that the girls don’t and I would like to show them that the girls know a thing or two. I would like to have this matter discussed before you again say no.

Julia McCoy

Cuyahoga Falls”

Beacon Journal columnist Jim Schlemmer responded: “You may discuss it at your pleasure. I’ll say no now.”

Julie Callahan and her husband Kennon Callahan wait for their turn to go down the hill at Derby Downs during Senior Day on Thursday.
Julie Callahan and her husband Kennon Callahan wait for their turn to go down the hill at Derby Downs during Senior Day on Thursday.

Looking back, Callahan remembers feeling discouraged that girls couldn’t compete in the Soap Box Derby. Her desire for change, though, wasn’t because she really wanted to be a feminist. She just wanted to race.

“It wasn’t that I was trying to do something for girls everywhere,” Callahan said. “But if you were a girl and wanted to build a Soap Box Derby and they wouldn’t let you, I was on your side because I’d already experienced that.”

Julie Callahan and her husband Kennon Callahan wait for their turn to go down the hill at Derby Downs during Senior Day on Thursday.
Julie Callahan and her husband Kennon Callahan wait for their turn to go down the hill at Derby Downs during Senior Day on Thursday.

Paving the way for female derby racers

The Soap Box Derby eventually allowed girls to compete in 1971, but that change came too late for Callahan.

Derby rules never explicitly stated that girls couldn’t participate, but the language of the rule book, participants and founder made their stance on the matter clear, Jeff Iula, former general manager of the All-American Soap Box Derby, told the Beacon Journal last year.

For 15-year-old Nancy Eichenlaub, however, that change came just in time.

The month before that year’s All-American Soap Box Derby, Nancy Eichenlaub, now Nancy Ferruccio, made history as the first girl to participate in the Akron local race. She was roped into racing by her brother, who was too young to enter the race but had already begun building the car.

Her parents further talked her into it by explaining that she could be the first female racer.

“I was very proud,” recalled Ferruccio, who now lives in North Canton. “Everybody in the stands when I was at the top of the hill, everyone in the stands stood up and started cheering, you know, that was really nice.”

More:'We’ll continue to change over time:' Soap Box Derby embraces first openly nonbinary racer

On Thursday, she drove down the 989-foot descent to the finish line in the lane next to Callahan. It was Ferruccio’s first time down the hill since 1971.

“It’s very exciting,” she said. “It brings back a lot of memories.”

Julie Callahan, who wrote a letter to the Beacon Journal in 1950 asking for girls to be able to race in the Soap Box Derby, and Nancy Ferruccio, who competed in the derby the first year girls were eligible, meet for the first time Thursday.
Julie Callahan, who wrote a letter to the Beacon Journal in 1950 asking for girls to be able to race in the Soap Box Derby, and Nancy Ferruccio, who competed in the derby the first year girls were eligible, meet for the first time Thursday.

Ahead of their race, the pair were introduced to each other by Mark Gerberich, the International Soap Box Derby’s president and CEO. Gerberich described Ferruccio to Callahan as “the lady that received the fruits of your labor.”

“Thank you for letting me be in,” Ferruccio told Callahan.

Kennon Callahan assists his wife Julie Callahan with removing her helmet after racing down the hill at Derby Downs during Senior Day on Thursday.
Kennon Callahan assists his wife Julie Callahan with removing her helmet after racing down the hill at Derby Downs during Senior Day on Thursday.
Kennon Callahan assists his wife Julie Callahan to her derby car as they prepare to race down the hill at Derby Downs during Senior Day on Thursday.
Kennon Callahan assists his wife Julie Callahan to her derby car as they prepare to race down the hill at Derby Downs during Senior Day on Thursday.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Female Soap Box Derby trailblazers race during Senior Day