Perched on the boot of an open convertible in a five-car caravan led by a wailing police car, the lanky, 95-pound, 11-year-old girl held up a shining plaque and grinned. The sign draped across the front of her house read “Move over A.J.” And as TV cameras memorialized the moment and hundreds of Morrisville, Pa. admirers stood by, Karren Stead, the first girl in racing history to win the All American Soap Box Derby, handled her homecoming reception with the aplomb of veteran driver A.J. Foyt.
It was the Year of the Woman in the derby, for girls who weren’t even allowed to compete until 1971. Karren sped through the 950-foot Derby Downs course in Akron, Ohio in 27.52 seconds, nosing out two boys in a photo finish. To top things off, five of the first nine finishers were girls in the Indy of the 11-to-15-year-old set. But female achievement wasn’t Karren’s concern. Did she consider herself a feminist? “No,” was her quick reply. A tomboy? “My mom says I am, but I’m not sure.” Of course, Karren won with a cast on her left arm, the result of some horseplay before the race. “A boy was chasing me with a water balloon,” was her explanation, “and I ran into another boy. I dislocated my thumb.”
The Stead family has become increasingly preoccupied with soap-box racing over the years. Karren learned a lot from her three older brothers, all of whom have entered the derby over the past seven years—this year, 14-year-old Kenny came in eighth. “It almost has to be a family effort,” says her father, John, a foreman in the Hooker Chemical Corp. in Burlington, N.J. “We learned from each of our past experiences what to do and what not to do. The kids need help, but you’d be surprised to see how much they can do with guidance.” With family coaching, Karren built her car for $50, learning to use a saber saw, disc grinder, drill press and router. “A girl works neater,” says her mother. “You don’t have to do as many things over.”
Karren hopes to continue competing, but she has other interests too. “I’m in the Girl Scouts and I’ve been going to ballet,” she says, “but I don’t like that so much. I like swimming and diving and, oh yeah, I like to ride minibikes. I guess I’m a weird kid.”