SANFORD — Norman “Norm” Perry, 76, was inducted into the Hall of Fame for the All American Soap Box Derby on Saturday, July 24, in Akron, Ohio following a lifetime of dedication to racing on a track, in business and to space.
The former Marine sergeant will be in good company as President Ronald Reagan and actor Jimmy Stewart are also in the Soap Box Derby Hall of Fame.
Perry’s experience with the Soap Box Derby began as a participant in the 1940s and he has been ‘in the pits’ ever since with his grandchildren and thousands of other children over the years.
He was also a member of another pit crew in the race known as the Space Race.
Perry, an engineer, is one of the “Fabulous Four” Explorer 1 Launch Team who sent the first satellite that successfully orbited the earth, catapulted to space aboard a Jupiter C Rocket on January 31, 1958 as employee with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA). Congress created NASA in July of the same year, from which Perry retired in 1989, and remains an active volunteer reflecting a 52-year commitment.
In 1981, Perry assumed the position of Industry Assistance Officer for NASA to build a program encouraging minority firms to compete for contracts. He also founded and became the President of the Brevard Small Business Assistance Council. Based on his successful leadership in these roles, Perry was honored by the North Brevard branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for his efforts to help minority-owned companies do business with NASA.
Perry believes in a leveled playing field for all and again touts the benefits of Soap Box Derby for children saying, “Behind that wheel, you are the equal of anyone, even if you are disabled”.
Perry explains that the character traits and values for a successful career are developed on a Derby Track.
“The dream begins when the idea of building and racing a Soap Box Derby car becomes a reality. The construction of the gravity race car reinforces the importance of setting and completing goals while developing traits such as self-confidence, perseverance and craftsmanship.”
Perry, once the Director of the Central Florida Soap Box Derby sponsored by the Recreation Department with the City of Sanford, and is now the Region VII Director of the All-American Soap Box Derby covering five (5) southeastern states (AL, FL, GA, MS, and SC) is very concerned that funding for the longest running children’s sport has run out.
Actor Corbin Bernsen hopes to help the nearly 75-year old racing league by producing a movie “25 Hill” which focuses on the bonding that occurs over a Derby Car. Filming of the All-American Race this weekend will be included in the movie.
Celebrities are a tradition at the All American Soap Box Derby. The first celebrity derby race was held in 1950 with Jack Dempsey, the former great heavyweight boxer, coming out on top over Wilbur Shaw, the three time winner of the Indianapolis 500, with actor Jimmy Stewart coming in third. In 1951, the celebrity derby was won by ventriloquist Paul Winchell and his dummy Jerry Mahoney who beat out actor Ronald Reagan who placed 2nd and actor Andy Devine who placed 3rd.
Other notables include actors Tom Hanks and Rock Hudson, President Richard Nixon, dare-devil Evel Knievel, NASCAR racers Joe Nemechek, Ricky Craven, Tony Stewart and even legend Dale Earnhardt have visited Akron for the national championship race.
Sanford has been holding derby races for 22 years and its Derby Park is the only Derby Track in the South East.
Competitors in the All American Soap Box Derby Race in Akron, Ohio are asked to vote for their favorite track in the country to grant the award “The Champs Choice Award”. Sanford’s Derby Park was awarded the “The Champs Choice Award” for 7 out of the 9 years the award has been offered. Sanford’s current Derby Race Director, Eric Griffin, raced for the Championship himself in 1970 and his son, Evan, won the 2002 Master’s All American World Championship. The Central Florida Soap Box Derby has been featured on Nickelodeon, TBS, ABC, Speed Channel, and has heralded five World Champs.
All-American Soap Box Derby labeled, “The Greatest Amateur Racing Event in the World”, is held in Akron, Ohio, the “Home of Derby Downs”, a 1,175-foot track built especially for Soap Box Derby racing.
The goals of the Soap Box Derby program have not changed since it began in 1934 to promote families working together, to teach children some basic skills of workmanship along with the spirit of competition and the perseverance to continue a project to completion.
The Annual World Championship challengers have won at rally races and qualifying races, where each heat of a race lasts less than 30 seconds, across the country in cities such as Sanford to work their way through the Challenger’s Bracket in an attempt to win the overall race. Approximately 500 racers compete in two or three car heats to determine a World Champion in each of six divisions every July in Akron.