Flint Soap Box Derby Race makes strong return after two-year hiatus

FLINT, Michigan — On the gorgeous Saturday morning of June 4, Genesee County residents gathered at Chevy Commons State Park for the 2nd annual Flint Soap Box Derby Race.

Hosted on the Kettering University campus, students prepared for weeks to speed their STEAM-designed cars 30 mph down Chevrolet Avenue in Flint. According to Kevin Cronin, executive director of the Flint Soap Box Derby, the event teaches its participants more than just building cars. 

Cronin, who is the grandson of former Mayor Donald Cronin, believes that relationship-building is one of the most important skills students attain from the decades-old program.

Teams build the cars from scratch at their own pace over the course of five weeks. During these workshops, Cronin says students also develop “not those intangibles and measurables but more of those softer skills that are being developed as well.” 

He also pointed out how some initially timid students become more interactive with fellow teammates and staff members after only one class. “At the end of that first workshop, they’re laughing, giving hugs, and making new friends.”

The 2nd annual Flint Soap Box Derby Race was held at Chevy Commons State Park, located on N. Chevrolet Avenue in Flint.
Last year during a mini-workshop, students were asked to share what they learned. Some of the testimonies Cronin received included positive feedback such as, “I learned how to do things in a collaborative environment, I learned attention to detail, I love your focus on females and engineering.

“Behind all those cars which have all the STEAM applications, there is a story with each kid and each family," said Cronin. "And we’re seeing that on display as well. We might not know it, but we’re seeing it. And that’s a really unique part that there’s so much meaning in this program from what we’ve done historically.”

Cronin’s history with derby racing has an interesting story that resonates in his commitment to FSBDR. Although he didn’t race when he was younger, he remembers playing with an older relative’s soap box car that was kept at Mayor Cronin’s home. 

“I don’t remember there being a race when I was growing up, but one of my uncles raced and he kept his car in his (grandfather's) garage. So, we would use that but not in an official race format,” Cronin recalls. 

"There was always a twinkle in everyone’s eye and excitement about bringing the race back." - Kevin Cronin
What eventually brought him into soap box racing was his aspiration to be more involved in the community and the memories he shared with his grandfather as a child. 

“It was something [reviving Cronin Derby] that I always stuck in the back of my head. I thought it was really cool and very intrigued by it but really didn’t know how to apply it or if it would go anywhere.” That was until 2018 when Cronin discovered Keeping Genesee County Beautiful and an opportunity to adopt the historic park that his grandfather built.

“Through those conversations and interactions with the organization and other park adopters, there was always a twinkle in everyone’s eye and excitement about bringing the race back,” explains Cronin. “And after hearing that I thought this is something people are really interested in and it would be a great program.”

Despite the event’s two-year hiatus due to Covid-19 restrictions, it has grown with the number of attendees and new sponsors such as Volks Wagon and Audio. 

In the future, Cronin states that FSBDR will continue its mission to “provide hands-on STEAM learning in a collaborative environment that builds community partnerships.” 

For more information on the Flint Soap Box Derby, visit: flintsoapbox.org

Read more articles by Omoro Collins.