John Barr races. / sourceJohn A. Barr focuses on the road ahead. / Family photo

Isla Jamieson, a YourArlington journalism intern who is a senior at Arlington High School, interviewed John Allan Barr in the bustling interim library of AHS after classes in December. Barr is among the first openly nonbinary soapbox derby racers. John’s pronouns are they/them/theirs, and those are used in this news profile. 

Barr, a 16-year-old sophomore at AHS, enters a ninth year of participating in soapbox derby races – now as an openly nonbinary racer. 

The Arlington native discovered soapbox racing on Eastern Avenue, next to Robbins Farm Park, where an annual race has been held since 2008. Immediately captivated by the sport, John began racing, “as soon as possible,” at age 7. Humble about soapbox racing achievements, John said they’ve “only won a few” but placed top third in the Akron, Ohio, championship, a national competition, last summer.

May be last year to race

John admitted this may be their last year racing. One of the most important factors for success in soapbox racing is being aerodynamic, so that the car can go as fast as possible. Most of the time, racers are completely bent over flat, and it has become increasingly difficult for John to fit properly into a race car.

John describes the reaction of New England’s tight-knit racing community as incredibly positive. Soapbox is a very generational sport, as John put it – with grandparents, parents and children all working together and participating – whether that be in building cars or seeking championships.

Among the fundamentals of soapbox competition is that the racer has to have at least some hand in building the car. That calls for engineering, which opens the door for young racers to opportunities for scholarships related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known collectively as STEM.

The Arlington soapbox scene includes many racers with families new to the sport. Asked about the regional racing community, John said many families in Connecticut, which they describe as more generational soapbox racers, took Arlington families under their wing as mentors. The soapbox community spreads farther than New England: CambridgeSide Galleria's winter races host competitors and fans from New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and even Georgia. 

No gender-based discrimination, he says

John has not experienced any kind of gender-based discrimination and has plans to build the next car decorated entirely with the pattern of pride flags. Soapbox racers all over have been welcoming to John after coming out as nonbinary.

 When John began to consider their identity in 2021, they had been well aware of what it meant to be nonbinary the year before, while attending a private school during the pandemic. John has many friends who are part of the LGBTIQ+ community and have been supportive. When John came out to their parents, they said they “did everything right,” being very supportive and open. 

Overall, Barr’s experience in Arlington has been positive. They describe Arlington High School as a tolerant place, with a positive ongoing discussion among peers and teachers. Barr personally hasn't experienced negative reactions, though they “can’t speak for everyone.” 

Pride, support

Arlington expresses a lot of pride and support, Barr said, and is open to discussion. That said, John added that, in terms of arranging races through local government, it can be challenging to get things done without dealing with red tape. Last summer, when John and his family went to Soapbox Derbys CEO Mark Gerberich to add nonbinary as a gender option on the signup form for the Ohio competition, they received an enthusiastic yes, but because of a technical error the option was not included. John wrote in “nonbinary,” and the form was soon changed. 

That had an impact on the racing community, particularly in the light of recent homophobic and transphobic legislation passed in the United States. 

While John may be coming to the end of their soapbox career, they still have an exciting winter season ahead, as well as aspirations to pursue journalism and photography. 

Akron Beacon Journal, July 22, 2022: 'We’ll continue to change over time:' Soap Box Derby embraces first openly nonbinary racer

June 7, 2016: 8th annual soap-box derby sends winners to top test 

This news feature by YourArlington intern Isla Jamieson was published Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023.