Soapbox Derby winner donates car to Historical Commission

By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer,

A relic of Darlington’s racing past will soon be on display at the Darlington County Historical Commission, thanks to a donation by a local citizen.

Hartsville native Tommy Jordan has raced cars and motorcycles from coast to coast, but his love for motorsports actually started in a contest with no motors at all. As a boy, he entered and won the inaugural Darlington Soapbox Derby in 1951 (an event co-sponsored by the News and Press) and he recently decided to donate his winning car and race kit to the Historical Commission.

“I’m close to seventy-nine years old and I don’t have any children to give it to, and it wasn’t doing anybody any good just sitting where it was, so I thought I’d like to see somebody get some good out of it,” says Jordan, who fondly remembers the soapbox derby as his first foray onto a racecourse.

“I was eleven years old at the time, and Chevrolet was a big sponsor of soapbox derby racing nationwide. They supplied wheels to the boys who had sponsorships for races, and I went home and told my mom and dad that I’d like to do it. My dad told me no, and said that I never finished anything I started, so I felt kind of left out,” says Jordan.

Luck was on his side, though, as his father spoke with local Shell service station owner John Stevenson just a few days later, and Stevenson offered to sponsor Tommy in the soapbox derby. His dad picked up a set of wheels from the local Chevy dealer and brought them home, and the Jordans were soon quite literally off to the races.

“Oh boy, I was so happy,” he recalls with a laugh.

Building the derby car was a team effort. Tommy worked with his dad to assemble a frame made of 2 x 8 boards, and covered it in a sheet metal chassis crafted to resemble one of his favorite race cars.

“I designed mine like an Indianapolis-style car with the nose low on the front,” he says. “It weighed two-hundred and fifty pounds with me in it, and we had to add weight to get it up to two-fifty because I was such a little fellow.”

The derby took place on Saturday, July 7. The racecourse started at the top of the hill on North Main Street, near the current location of Carolina Bank, and ran down to the old railroad trestle below. Tommy doesn’t have any idea how fast he was going, but remembers the exhilaration of earning his first racing victory.

“It was a big deal. I won at Darlington and after that I went to Akron, Ohio and competed in the finals where I was eliminated. There was another local boy who raced with me that first year, named Wilson Sartor, who came in second place. I think he won in Darlington the second year they held the soapbox derby and he got to go to Akron,” says Tommy.

News articles about the 1951 race also mention another derby racer – a young man named Cale Yarborough, who won five dollars in merchandise for his efforts.

After Akron, Tommy Jordan’s soapbox derby car was retired for several years, but was pulled out of mothballs and raced again by his nine year-old stepson Mark Raines in a 1968 Florence derby.

“Mark finished a real close second, and the father of the winner told me he was glad Mark didn’t win because he would have hated to get beat by a twenty-five year old car,” says Tommy.

The little car proved very durable, only suffering a snapped brake cable during the race, and Jordan says that with a few small repairs it could probably still run a pretty good race today. He’s kept it hanging on a wall in his basement for decades, and it still looks remarkably fresh and spry for its age, with the red painted “News and Press” logo still crisp on the sides.

Jordan also donated his racing jacket and helmet, along with the official flag from the 1951 Darlington Soapbox Derby. The Darlington County Historical Commission is planning to fashion a special display for these items, which should be a special treat for all lovers of racing history.

To learn more, contact the Historical Commission at 843-398-4710 or stop by and visit them at 204 Hewitt Street in Darlington.

Author: Stephan Drew

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