Preparing to win the Soapbox Derby
I’d never heard this story about my hometown. It appeared in a column about Boulder County history in my local paper, The Daily Camera.
The year was 1973. It was the same year that Richard Nixon said "I am not a crook" before he resigned the next year because of the Watergate scandal which proved that yes, he was a crook.
A 14-year-old Boulder kid named Jimmy Gronen, who was sponsored by the local Jaycees organization, entered and won the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio.
Until he was disqualified for cheating.
His race car, which was supposed to head down a hill powered only by gravity, contained an electromagnet in the nose that was switched on when he leaned his head back against a hidden switch.
The cars were held back by a metal rod, and when the rod was released, the magnet was attracted to the metal and helped the car to surge forward.
A diagram of the deception
Said an Ohio prosecutor after the scandal was uncovered:
"It’s like seeing apple pie, motherhood and the American flag grinding to a halt."
Jimmy Gronen’s father had died and his mother was very ill, so he was living with his uncle and the Lange family in Boulder. Robert Lange was a businessman who studied engineering and economics at Harvard and started the innovative Lange ski boot company.
Mr. Lange admitted yes I helped the boy cheat using a "speed gimmick". He wrote:
"I knew that this was a violation of the official Derby rules and consider it now to be a serious mistake in judgment."
He justified himself by saying that everyone cheated.
That was also very likely true, since the cars were supposed to be built by the young people themselves, with no added non-official parts, and there was a great deal of evidence that there was cheating, and that the All-American Soap Box Derby was really of course all about winning.
"Big" Jim Gronen’s car
This sounds like Lance Armstrong and other athletes of today as they also explain why they cheated – how could they compete fairly if everyone else was cheating and they didn’t cheat as well?
There were consequences of course to the cheaters, such as Mr. Lange having to pay $2,000 to the Boys Club of Boulder, and no racing for you for two years, but the most interesting thing I found in my research was an 2004 article from Westword magazine. Reporter Eric Dexheimer wanted to know how Jimmy Grogen fared when he grew up, so he found him and asked.
Mr. Grogen said "I’ve spent a lot of time in spiritual inquiry."
Following the derby, Gronen traveled to Minnesota to visit his mother at the Mayo Clinic. It was there, while sitting in his hotel room, that he heard Walter Cronkite mention his name. "Well, ladies and gentlemen, there’s one little boy in America unhappier than Richard Nixon this evening," Cronkite said. "And it’s little Jimmy Gronen, who cheated in the Soap Box Derby."
To escape the media circus, Gronen was quickly whisked away to an isolated family vacation spot in Northern Wisconsin, a fishing lodge accessible only by boat. He remembers reporters staking out the lake. Although derby officials demanded that Gronen return his championship trophy, he decided not to. Instead, he says, he sawed it up with a hacksaw and threw it into the lake.
That seemed symbolic of what happened within Gronen’s family, as well. At home, he says, the subject of the dirty derby seemed to disappear like a crazy aunt exiled to the attic, leaving Gronen alone with his thoughts. "It was a funny time," Gronen recalls. "I really didn’t have any support. I basically had to bear the brunt of this, at the age of fourteen."
When it came time to take responsibility for the derby scandal, among the Langes the notion of blame was a confusing one. For example, when the idea of installing the magnet was raised, Gronen says that, while it wasn’t his idea, he didn’t object, either. "I don’t recall having any qualms," he says. But, he adds, "it was overpowering. My uncle, Bob Lange, was an overpowering figure." As a result, Gronen says from a vantage point of three decades, it’s hard to know how much say he really had in the matter.
"To my uncle, it was more a technical issue than a moral one. Bob passed away three years ago. He was never really able to face it. He was a really gung-ho entrepreneur; he wasn’t a reflective man. I think he felt really bad for me, but also felt it was a really corrupt environment. It was easy for him to rationalize. My grandfather was the only one who talked about it to me. He said, ‘It’s a wholesome thing to be busted in an act of dishonesty.’ But he died shortly after the derby."
With the uproar over the scandal fizzling out, Gronen returned to school that fall. He says that far from being ostracized, he was treated well. Indeed, several of his teachers told him they thought what he did was great.
Morally, the response was perplexing, and Gronen himself seems to have struggled with the ambivalence. He recalls an incident that symbolized the ambiguity he felt: "I went to a small private school in the mountains. I had a really far-out algebra teacher who also taught religion. Every spring he told his class to design and put on a boat race in a local irrigation ditch. It had to do with design, but it also taught us to take responsibility for the event.
"When it came time to write the rules — e.g., no batteries, no engines — everyone wanted to detail all the things you couldn’t do. I became extremely annoyed. I’d been through the race process; I knew how corruption occurs. So I said, ‘Let’s just write a paragraph explaining the spirit of the race, then have three judges decide whether entries qualify.’ Listing every way to cheat encourages people to think of ways to go through the cracks."
Gronen says his classmates overruled him. So to make his point, he found a fifty-foot rubber band and made what was in effect a huge slingshot. His boat won the race easily.
"I didn’t cheat," he points out. "I actually played within the rules. I was demonstrating to them the folly" of trying to anticipate all the ways people might cheat.
Toward the end of high school, Gronen says, he began exploring the notion of spirituality, mostly through Eastern mystic religions. Studying them soon became the central part of his life. "I was so focused on my spiritual pursuits that I didn’t develop a career, per se," he says. "I finished high school and college; I’ve worked a number of jobs. But I’ve spent most of my life in monastic life, seeking truth. My real passion has been the study of dharma. It’s just a big quest."
Gronen says he stayed attached to Boulder because of the Naropa Institute. But he also spends time in Iowa, where, he says, he helped found a non-profit institute called Four Mounds. The institute revolves around a 54-acre plot of land donated to the city of Dubuque by one of Gronen’s relatives.
According to its website, Four Mounds features a program called Y.E.S., or Youth Empowerment Services, described as "alternative intervention services for children and adolescents ages 14 to 17 who are in need of direction, support, mentoring and the growth of self-esteem."
The description is familiar, and the connection seems obvious. But Gronen is not prepared to say he pursued a life of spiritual inquiry and do-gooding to atone for his derby sins. "I’m sure the scandal affected my life," he says. "I’m not exactly clear how, though. Did I go into religion and spirituality because of this? I don’t know."
He continues: "The scandal overall was a real blessing to me. I’m sorry that it happened, but I think there was a benefit to it."
"There are two motivations for seeking the truth. One, to escape pain. And two, a love of the truth itself. I share both of these motives."
– Uphill Racer. Jim Gronen steers clear of his boyhood Derby scandal. Westword>>
– Soap Box Derby cheating scandal put Boulder boy in spotlight, The Daily Camera>>
– Photo from Modcult>>
– Photo from Flickr>>
This book has a chapter on the Magnetic Nose – Champions, Cheaters, and Childhood Dreams: Memories of the Soap Box Derby, Amazon>>