Soap box racers on track Teamwork: Between questions at the Maryland Science Center, three derby champions build a racer from scratch.

March 23, 1998|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

When Kevin Fitzgerald talks about the ins and outs of racing, it's hard to remember that he's an 11-year-old whose feet probably couldn't reach the pedals of a real car.

He can talk about "jigging" his racer to make sure it's in alignment. He can tell you about soaking bearings in lighter fluid to keep the dirt off. And before each race, you can find him walking the track, rubbing his palms along the ground to get an up-close feel of its condition.

"If it's a rough track, you might want to make the car a bit loose, so you don't lose control on the bumps," Kevin says matter-of-factly. "If it's smooth, you want to leave your steering tight."

Yesterday, he and two other Westminster soap box derby champs visited the Maryland Science Center to provide a glimpse into their world of junior lug nuts, ratchets and wrenches.

Kevin knows what he's talking about -- even if it's the intricacies of the soap box derby rather than the Indy 500. He is a three-time champion of the Westminster Area

Soap Box Derby, conqueror of all three racing divisions.

Between questions from interested spectators, Kevin and the others -- 12-year-old Dawn O'Byrne and her 14-year-old brother Robert -- worked on a racer they were building from scratch.

"Usually, when kids fiddle with things or take them apart, the first reaction from their parents is 'Don't touch that,' " said Charles O'Byrne, the Westminster Soap Box Derby's director and Dawn and Robert's father. "But with the soap box derby, they learn to work with tools and parts and put things together. It gives them confidence in themselves."

In Westminster, Charles O'Byrne says, the soap box derby -- which began in the 1930s -- is fast becoming a popular hobby. Now in its sixth year, his association is attracting dozens of children each year to compete in its annual race. A win at Westminster in June qualifies racers for the world championships in Akron, Ohio, in August.

Just like in the 1930s, contestants build their cars for the soap box derby, then race them. Originally, the racers were made by molding chicken wire into the shape of the car, then affixing wood to the sides with plaster or putty. Now, the racers are sleek machines built from tongue-and-groove wood slats that are hand-wrapped in fiberglass.

In the two beginning racing divisions -- stock and superstock -- the cars come in kits with instructions, but require assembly of everything from the steering mechanism to the brakes. Dozens of tiny screws, nuts and bolts must be placed just right onto the car and everything must line up for the vehicle to go straight.

The toughest division -- masters -- has only car specifications. Children can design cars however they wish. Often, these cars are custom built around a child.

The cars can cost more than $250, so children solicit sponsors. Like real race car drivers, they affix decals to their cars.

Big-time advertisers they are not. One of Kevin's cars is emblazoned with a Westminster Elks Club decal. Another boasts a "Donald Moore Funeral Home" sticker.

Kevin has been building (or helping to build) cars since he was 5. He won the masters division race last year, so he is no longer eligible to compete at Westminster.

"It's a lot of fun," Kevin said yesterday, wrench and ratchet in hand as he, Dawn and Robert O'Byrne demonstrated how to put a soap box racer together. "Now I'm going to move on to rally races."

Robert and Dawn O'Byrne were last year's super stock and stock division winners, respectively. They also have participated since the age of 5 or 6 and built several cars.

Robert noted yesterday that while it's important to build a good car, something is more crucial to winning.

"It's not the car. It's the driver," Robert said. "You could have the best car in the world but if you don't know what you're doing, you could lose."

Pub Date: 3/23/98

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