Just wheeling along Soap box derby: Ryan Harrigan of Columbia has been racing since February and has already earned entry in a national rally.

December 09, 1997|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

Michael Harrigan's smile grows a little wider every time he watches his 9-year-old son, Ryan, race in a soap box derby.

It's not necessarily the winning that pleases the elder Harrigan -- although the Columbia resident is the first to admit that seeing Ryan collect eight trophies in just 11 races is "great."

Rather, Michael Harrigan gets a such kick out of watching his son compete because the father was once a race car driver himself.

"I'm excited for him," concedes Michael Harrigan, a 43-year-old branch chief and photographer for U.S. Department of Defense who raced with the Sports Car Club of America about 20 years ago. "You feel a bit of nostalgia."

Ryan, a talkative fourth-grader at Clemens Crossing Elementary School, is more concerned about the trophies.

"I like winning them," he says. "I want them."

In only his first season of racing, Ryan has enjoyed an amazing year. In his second race ever, Ryan placed third at the Westminster Soap Box Derby in June. He has won seven more trophies, which are typically given to the top 10 finishers if there are more than 24 competitors in a race.

Ryan recently finished eighth out of 12 in a race in Winston-Salem, N.C., this Thanksgiving weekend. And next July, Ryan will represent the Westminster region in the National Derby Rallies (NDR) National Championship in Indianapolis -- a surprising feat, says Ken Tomasello, who knows a thing or two about soap box racing.

"He's come up pretty quickly, faster than others," says Tomasello, regional director for the All-American Soap Box Derby and whose youngest daughter won the NDR this past July. "He's not at the point where he's winning races yet, but he's getting close."

Adds Charles Herbert O'Byrne, director of the Westminster derby whose 11-year-old daughter won the race: "For a first-year child, that's rare. It usually takes a few years to do that."

The irony is that this may never have come to be if Michael Harrigan hadn't been searching the Internet for a gift for Ryan's birthday last February.

"I'm fishing around, trying to get something for him when I found it," Michael Harrigan said of soap box racing. "And I thought it would be interesting."

Besides, the elder Harrigan didn't know much about his son's other favorite hobby, soccer, and Ryan had already mastered four Nintendo games.

Ryan admitted that he was skeptical about the idea.

"First, I wanted to see what it looked like," Ryan said. "Then I said, 'Cool. How do you steer it?'"

So Michael Harrigan ordered a soap box race car kit and father and son constructed the sleek No. 44 car, a Fiberglass body with a wood floorboard.

Because Ryan was a beginner, he competed in the stock class, which usually includes girls and boys between ages 8 and 16. Most of the races Ryan participated in were in York, Pa. -- a sort of soap box Mecca, which also boasts its own soap box race track.

Ryan acknowledged that he was nervous and scared during his first few races.

"The hardest part is getting down low," Ryan said, pointing out that he must crouch as low as he can to maximize his car's aerodynamic ability.

Ryan stretches every night before he goes to bed so that he can crouch lower. Michael Harrigan said he's looking to sign Ryan up for yoga classes.

And like many of his fellow competitors, Ryan is superstitious. During every race, he wears his favorite blue helmet, which he wore when he placed third at the Westminster derby.

He doesn't wear shoes. Instead he dons on a pair of heavily taped socks because the other kids wear the same thing.

But both Ryan and Michael Harrigan say nothing is done without official approval from Ryan's mom, Kathy, who said she doesn't mind her son's new hobby.

"As long as he enjoys it, it keeps him out of trouble, and he's with his dad," Kathy Harrigan says.

Ryan is preparing for the NDR, but he has no visions of becoming the next Jeff Gordon.

"I want to be a photographer, like my dad," Ryan says.

Like father like son.

Pub Date: 12/09/97

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