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This photo is taken from the News Free Press photo archive housed at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Y.L. Coker Jr. won the 1949 Chattanooga Soap Box Derby's age 12-15 division. His mother, Dolly Coker, is at right.

See anyone you know in this 1949 photo of the Chattanooga Soap Box Derby? Although it was taken 71 years ago, you might find a family member in this sea of faces.

Spanning nine decades and billed as the greatest amateur race in the world, the Soap Box Derby got its start during the Great Depression in Ohio and quickly swept America — including Chattanooga — during the first half of the 20th century.

According to SoapBoxDerby.org: "The idea of the Soap Box Derby grew out of a photographic assignment of Dayton, Ohio, newsman Myron Scott. He came across a group of boys racing their homemade cars in the summer of 1933, and was so impressed with the event that he acquired a copyright to Soap Box Derby and went in search of a corporate sponsor to establish a national program."

Today's "Remember when, Chattanooga?" photo dates from 1949, when the Chattanooga News Free Press sponsored a Soap Box Derby race here. The activity had been paused for WWII, and this was a revival.

The soapbox derby car pictured here, according to newspaper archives, is driven by Y.L. Coker Jr., who won the 1949 Chattanooga Soap Box Derby's 12-15 age division.

More Info

See the Remember when, Chattanooga? Facebook page for more photographic memories of the Chattanooga area. Photos featured in this series are also available for closer inspection at chattanoogahistory.com/rememberwhen, part of a website curated by local historian Sam Hall.

In 2015, local attorney Jerry Summers bylined a local history article in the Sunday Perspective section of the Times Free Press about Chattanooga's Soap Box Derby tradition. Here are some excerpts from Summers' article:

"The history of the National Soap Box Derby has a strong Chattanooga connection.

Dayton Daily News photographer Myron E. Scott started an impromptu race for 19 boys in that Ohio city in 1934. Interest mushroomed, and the next year 34 cities including Chattanooga entered the Dayton race.

... The Chattanooga Times, Newton Chevrolet and Hamilton Chevrolet were sponsors (of local preliminaries). The local race course first started at the Bachman Tunnel and sloped west to Dodds Avenue. A crowded finish area during the 1934 preliminaries prompted officials to move the race course to Wilcox Tunnel sloping east and ending on a practically level space of more than a half mile. Sixty homemade gravity-powered vehicles participated.

... The races continued in Chattanooga until the outbreak of World War II, then stopped.

In 1949, organizers with the sponsorship of the Chattanooga News-Free Press resurrected the contest. Starting at the crest of Ninth Street (at Park Avenue), 400 vehicles raced at intervals due west. The winner in the "A" Division (age 12-15) was 13-year-old Y.L. Coker Jr., who was sponsored by his father's business, Coker's Grocery on Brainerd Road. Y.L.'s experience gave him a sense of accomplishment and a host of new friends.

No races were held after 1949 until 1976, when the Chattanooga Kiwanis Club reactivated the event. Derby contestants sped down a 400-foot stretch of Sixth Street near today's YMCA.

Chattanoogans Will Suggs in 1977, Amy Higgins in 1982 and Ray Hixson in 1982 finished second in their class in the national derby. A 2015 local participant, Charlie Hooks' grandfather was the national winner in 1949 from his hometown of Charleston, West Virginia.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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