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Retro Baltimore: Not even polio could stop young Billy Blair from winning the Sunpapers Soap Box Derby

His name was Billy Blair, and his story touched all who knew him.

Sixty-five years ago Blair, a 15-year-old schoolboy from Ruxton, won the Sunpapers Soap Box Derby, a heralded event that mirrored America’s passion for kids’ racing back then. The victory sent him to the 1956 national championship in Akron, Ohio. There, on Aug. 12, before a crowd of 60,000, Blair won two heats before losing in the third round.

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That alone made news back home. But Blair’s feats on the track were magnified by the fact that, years before, he’d contracted the polio virus and fought his way back to compete. The Sun, which covered all of his races, reported that the slim, freckle-faced youth walked “with only a slight limp to indicate that, seven years ago [in 1949], he had suffered a severe bout of polio which, for a time, left 85 percent of his body paralyzed.” (The polio vaccine was discovered in the early 1950s.)

Blair recovered enough to take up soap box racing, a craze that swept the country in the wake of World War II. So, on a breezy June day in 1956, he eased his car, “a sleek, low-slung job painted black and yellow,” to the starting line on Hillen Road for the eighth annual Sunpapers Derby, also sponsored by Chevrolet.

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The McDonogh School sophomore had done his homework. The year before, he and his father attended the nationals in Akron where Blair chatted with the top drivers and sized up their cars. On his return, he made several scale model racers and tested them in the Glenn L. Martin Wind Tunnel at the University of Maryland. While building his car, to offset the paralysis in his right leg, Blair rigged a braking system that allowed him to slow with a mere flex of his ankle.

On race day, against 135 entrants, he won seven straight qualifying heats and the finals (by one length) before the 2,000 raucous fans who lined the 975-foot track. WMAR (Channel 2) reporter Dave Stickle covered the race and spoke with Blair, whose winning time was 32.8 seconds.

Billy Blair wins the Sunpapers Soap Box Derby on June 30, 1956.
Billy Blair wins the Sunpapers Soap Box Derby on June 30, 1956. (William Klender/Baltimore Sun)

“Wow,” was all the champ could say. Six weeks later, as he and his family boarded a plane to Akron for the 19th All-American Soap Box Derby finals, Blair shared his thoughts with an accompanying Sun reporter.

“I don’t want to sound too optimistic, but I think I can give these boys a real race on Sunday,” he said, while clutching a box containing his car’s “secret” lubricating oil.

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Blair nearly didn’t get to grease the wheels. At the check-in before the race, he at first failed to make weight, a 250-pound limit for driver and vehicle. One pound over, he stripped off his undershirt and removed both his wristwatch and a ballast board from his car. The ploy worked. Had it not, he said, “I’d have taken off my socks and shoes and raced in a pair of slippers.”

Festivities began with a parade, led by the U.S. Navy band, TV star Roy Rogers, comedian Joe E. Brown and the 155 regional soap box derby champions. As he settled into his car, with its bright red seat and wheels, Baltimore’s best basked in the moment. At stake: a $5,000 college scholarship. That would be about $50,000 today.

“Even if I don’t win,” he told a hometown reporter, “it will be fun trying.”

Blair won his first heat “by a scant half a foot” and the second race by one-half length. The third heat, he lost by 2 feet to a challenger from San Francisco. The defeat, The Sun reported, “was greeted with groans by a small phalanx of firm Baltimore rooters who had journeyed to Akron.”

His joy ride over, Blair returned home, where he graduated from McDonogh in 1959, attended the University of Maryland and worked in the insurance business. Reportedly, he died in 2014 at age 73 in Michigan.

The Sunpapers Soap Box Derby expired after 1956. The Baltimore race was revived briefly in the 1970s, sponsored first by the Baltimore Jaycees and, later, by the city’s public schools. The national event endures, having weathered a scandal in 1973 when the champ was found to have used a magnetic speed device to help him win.

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