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Justin Vannatta in the far lane finishes first in phase two of his Super Stock race against Adam Denney but it wasn't enough to win against Denney.

ANDERSON — Participating in the Anderson Soap Box Derby is like a rite of passage for the Townsend family.

“Since 1952, our family has been involved with the Soap Box Derby,” Brooks Townsend said.

Townsend, his two brothers and the generations after them have all competed and won in the Anderson Soap Box Derby, many of them going on to the national competition in Akron, Ohio.

Despite a sharp decline in interest in soap box racing, the Townsends continue to be part of what is a shining tradition in Anderson’s history. This year, Brooks Townsend will be inducted into the national Soap Box Derby Hall of Fame in Akron for his service to the sport.

Anderson is one of four original cities — along with Indianapolis, Akron and Cleveland, Ohio — to continue to participate in the national competition, which was started by a reporter for the newspaper in Akron in 1934.

Anderson also started its competition that year, Townsend said.

“Over the years, it spread and got huge,” he said. “It probably hit its prime, the very biggest, in terms of crowds and interest, in the 1960s. You used to have 60,000 to 70,000 people at that national race in Akron. You actually could not get tickets to the race. We had to order our tickets a year ahead of time.”

Thousands in Anderson would come to watch the derby each year, Townsend said. Before the early 1960s, children would race down a street next to the Madison County courthouse in the single-elimination tournament. The winner would go on to Akron.

By 1962, Townsend’s father, Woody, and co-chair Denny Weatherford had built a track for the homemade, nonmechanic cars. Townsend Hill, located near the Anderson Country Club on Madison Avenue, is still used to this day.

Brooks Townsend had a “precarious start” in soap box racing.

“At that time (1952), a lot of kids in the neighborhood were building derbies. The day before the race, I got the mumps. I let one of my classmates drive it for me, and then unfortunately, he crashed it. That was my start in the derby.”

Brooks Townsend, who was 12 at the time, got second place the next year and won the Anderson race when he was 15. Brooks made it to the second round in Akron before he was eliminated.

“My father and I were talking on the way home, and he said, ‘Brooks, when we come back up here next time, we’re going to win this thing. We did with my brothers.”

Terry Townsend was 14 when he won the national race.

“He won it by the largest margin in history in the final heat,” Brooks Townsend said.

Barney Townsend, the youngest brother, won the national race in 1959, making the Terry and Barney duo the first brothers to ever win the national race.

Brooks Townsend eventually became chairman of the Anderson derby.

“It was a neat event,” he said. “We had bands, marching bands there, convertibles, a big parade. It was huge.”

However, the sport has seen major declines over the years.

“Derby takes a lot of work, a lot of dedication,” Townsend said. “You could work all year long on a car, and if you lost, that was it. You were done.”

While the rules and regulations have changed for the sport, the idea behind it still remains the same.

“There are so many positive things in term of the family,” Townsend said. “It’s a family thing, and a lot of fun and a lot of work.”

If you go:

What: Anderson Soap Box Derby

When: Saturday, June 21, 9 a.m.

Where: Townsend Hill, Madison Avenue near bridge

Cost: Admission free

About this series

This is the 46th installment of the year-long A+ series. The series celebrates the people, places, events, institutions and history that make the Anderson area special.

Next Monday

Babe Ruth and Little League state championship teams.

A+ nominations

To nominate a subject for the A+ series, e-mail to Managing Editor Scott Underwood at scott.underwood@heraldbulletin.com, call him at (765) 640-4845 or send a letter to him at The Herald Bulletin, P.O. Box 1090, Anderson, IN 46015.

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