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Bill Kirby Jr.: Warren Hahn is still a kid at heart

Hahn and the Kiwanis of the Cape Fear are working to bring the Soap Box Derby to Cumberland County.

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You might say that Warren Hahn is still a kid at heart. 

He can vividly recall as a 9-year-old competing in the annual Soap Box Derby in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. 

“I raced in it four years in a row,” says Hahn, who is 74. “Back then you built your own car. I never won the big thing, but I raced in some heats. There would be anywhere from 8,000 watching, and when the national event was there, attendance was at 45,000 in the stands to watch the race.” 

It was, Hahn says, an experience.  

“It was stunning,” he says. 

Hahn and members of the Kiwanis of the Cape Fear want young folks in this community and beyond to have that same experience. The club is aiming to bring the competition to Cumberland County on May 5-7, 2023. 

This community has had a Soap Box Derby before – back in 1969 and in 1971, when 11-year-old Sandra Sosa and her girlhood friends Deborah Bosseai and Cynthia Hafer took part after Bosseai’s mother threatened to sue the national Soap Box Derby organization for discrimination.  

There was “absolutely no ladylike way’’ a girl could fit into a Soap Box racer, the national organization told Carole Forbes, who was Bosseai’s mother. Forbes, who was then president of the local chapter of the National Organization for Women, thought otherwise.  

Sosa went on to compete in the Soap Box Derby national competition.  

“The Sosa girl was the first female to compete in 1971,” Hahn says. “Girls are very competitive. I went to an international event in Ohio and about 45% were female.” 

The Kiwanians want all genders and youth ages 7 to 20 to participate.   

“I’d like to get 40 to 50 entrants,” he says.  

Another project for the club 

The club was looking for ways to raise money for the community in addition to its annual pancake breakfast, which is moving to March this year, and its annual golf tournament, which is scheduled for October. Bringing the Soap Box Derby to Fayetteville has been something club members have been talking about for the past five or six years. 

“I went to Bowling Green, Kentucky, because their Kiwanis Club does a Soap Box Derby,” Hahn says. “It’s a major fundraiser for them.” 

Hahn liked what he saw in Bowling Green and shared information with club President Diane Thornton and members to include Mike Dudley, Mike Murphy, Joseph Welsch and Josephine Mecca.  

“The Soap Box Derby requires that to stage a local competition, you must be a nonprofit.  

“This is a Cape Fear Kiwanis Foundation project,” Hahn says. “We have been discussing the possibility of the annual event for five or six years. We set up the foundation, 501(c) (3)  about three years ago to handle our charitable fundraising. In February of last year we got a limited license for three years.” 

Now the club wants to see the project become a reality 16 months from now.  

“Our club would like to get this off the ground,” Hahn says. “Coming off of COVID-19, kids have been isolated.” 

Building a Soap Box Derby race car, Hahn says, can cost upwards of $1,000.

“But we want to have a donor program,” he says. “We would buy the kits for kids to build their race cars. Kids of Gold Star families, children of veterans, kids in need like from the Boys and Girls Clubs. Our goal is to have those kits so kids could race for free.

The only Soap Box Derby competition in the state is in Morganton, Hahn says, and that gives Cumberland County an opportunity to bring competitors from not only Fayetteville but from the coast near Wilmington and elsewhere. 

“We have the eastern part of the state all the way to the ocean, Virginia line and Myrtle Beach,” Hahn says. 

You may have figured out by now these Kiwanians are excited and enthusiastic about bringing this Soap Box Derby to fruition. 

A place to race 

Just one problem.  

You gotta have a place to race.  

“The problem is securing a place,” Hahn says. “Ideally, you want a racing surface 700 to 900 feet, and a breaking area. I’d say about a quarter-mile long. Another problem is that you have to shut down the place two or three days.” 

There’s prepping the surface and shutting down traffic, too.  

“It’s quite involved,” Hahn says.  

He liked Lake Rim near the N.C. Fish Hatchery with its Gillis Hill slope, but the wildlife folks said no to closing the fishing preserve. He says West Mountain Drive near the Crown Complex is a potential location.  

“It’s not a hill, but a slope,” Hahn says. “It slopes down about 20 feet, and we would have access.” 

And, of course, there’s also Gillespie Street heading down from Massey Hill, which is where the 1971 Soap Box Derby was held under the auspices of the old Fayetteville Jaycees.  

Personally, some of us like the idea of a Soap Box Derby race from the old Highsmith Hospital down Hay Street into the mouth of the city.  

Time will tell.  

Hahn says that for now, the club is working with the Fayetteville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau to help secure a location. 

“I think it’s a good idea,” says Randy Fiveash, interim president and chief executive officer of the bureau. “I told him we are happy to help him scope out some spots. I’ve worked with a lot of different communities, and told him we’d be happy to help however we could.” 

With competitors from out of town competing, Fiveash says, a Soap Box Derby could “be huge for the community” with its economic impact on things such as restaurants and lodging. 

Epilogue 

Maybe Warren Hahn didn’t win the Soap Box Derby national championship as a kid, but he’s still a kid at heart when he talks about his youth.  

In 1949, Jimmy Stewart was doing the play ‘Harvey’ on Broadway,” Hahn says. “He canceled the play on that weekend and gave everybody their money back so he could be grand marshal at the derby.” 

Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at billkirby49@gmail.com or 910-624-1961.  

Column, Warren Hahn, Kiwanis of the Cape Fear, Soap Box Derby, fundraiser, Fayetteville, Cumberland County

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