Corvette designer, intrepid driver team up for Soapbox Derby glory

By Glynis Crawford Smith

The Highlander

No one seemed to notice a lone 73-year-old lady who waited quietly in the room full of men signing up for races in the 2016 Marble Falls Adult Soap Box Derby.

“Hello, I'm Alice Gardiner and I'll be racing against you in the derby,” she said, finally.

The others seemed unimpressed and, after a few courteous greetings, returned to conversations. That is, until her next words: “Hey guys, the builder of my soap box is sitting over there and he was the original engineer who developed the Corvette.”

“Oh my gosh how things changed,” she said. “Like kids they ran over to him and became totally enamored with John. They wanted him to sign autograph pictures of that car he originally designed.

It was so much fun.”

John T. Camden, 85, of Pflugerville is the last man standing from the Chevrolet engineering division that developed the first eight-cylinder Corvette in Warren, Michigan.

But a career married to motors didn't stop him from delighting in the 2015 Marble Falls Adult Soap Box Derby.

“We were having dinner together and he was so excited telling us all about it,” said Gardiner, owner of Active Life, a Sun City real estate company. “I asked if he thought he could build one and he said, 'sure'.”

“Well, you are not driving it,” said Camden's wife Kay.

“I will,” said Gardiner. “I'll drive it.”

“The damage was done,” she said. “John was on the MIT website researching in no time.”

The car has ceramic ball bearings, precision-built spokes, mechanical disc breaks from a go-cart, Harley Davidson break lines and Honda springs.

“She basically threw a challenge at me,” said Camden. “She said she would pay for the development if I would build it.”

“I was just a spectator at last year's gravity car race (and) I've never done anything of this gender before,” he said. “So the first two months after Father's Day last year, I was doing research on the rolling resistance of bearings and tires and effective air pressure in tires. I think it paid off. Data shows a 30 percent reduction in rolling resistance.”

“I’ve never been in any thing like this race,” Gardiner said of her own challenges. “So, at that mandatory meeting I entered four races. Later, when I looked at the roster I saw that none of all those young and middle-aged men had signed up for more than two races. They'll race in two and I'll be racing day and night for three days.”

Gardiner did enter the Powder Puff race for women, but also the Jamaican bobsled slalom, the giant slalom and the new High Octane race.

“I had to choose between that one and the fun race where everyone dresses up,” she said. “They wouldn't let me sign up for both.”

“I have a 13-member pit crew and we'll need a place to rest, so I've rented us a 900-square-foot apartment in the Williams House right on the Third Street track,” she said. “I rented the 4,000-square-foot bed & breakfast so all of us will have a place to sleep.”

The intrepid driver undoubtedly will bring a fan base.

Gardiner's friend Clyde E. Jeffcoat, has been pushing her to write a story for Sun City magazine in their retirement community.

“Alice won't talk about herself,” he said. “This woman has been through South American jungles and the Himalayan Mountains.”

“The race is inconsequential compared to the positive image that you project to your constituency,” he wrote when he heard about the race. “They are people who know, love, and admire you, not only your daughter and family, your vast array of close friends, business associates, and the Sun City/Georgetown community, but also senior citizens as a whole who are resolved to get the most out of the remaining years that we have in front of us.

“You personify the image that all of us aspire to attain—a person that is enjoying life to the fullest as opposed to feeling sorry for ourselves because we are over 70 and feeling a few aches and pains. Your 'damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead' attitude is an inspiration to all of us.”

Anyone chancing to meet Camden is in for a thrilling view into auto history. He worked from 1950-57 for Chevrolet, primarily on Corvette engine development, including the inline-six (sometimes referred to as the straight six-cylinder engine) used in the the first generation of the Corvette sports car, the “Blue Flame.

“The original V-8 was a 265-inch displacement engine that appeared in the 1955 Chevrolet passenger car line,” he said. “We first tried it in what the team called the Mule.”

Camden's accounts of establishing Chevrolet as a standard among racers and testing and building Vettes to accommodate the V-8 are pure saga and he is the last of the team telling them.

“We have been joking,” he said. “the Corvette was my first design and this derby car will be my last.”

For a full schedule of the races, visit www.highlandernews.com or www.adultsoapboxderby.com online.

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