Derby racer driven to win

Competition: An accomplished Columbia contender is participating in a weeklong national contest that begins today.

Howard At Play

July 28, 2002|By Nathan Max | Nathan Max,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Ryan Harrigan, at 14, is one of the top competitors in the nation in his chosen sport, but he still finds it difficult sometimes to get respect from his comrades.

"When I tell my friends `soap box derby,' they just think it's a cardboard box that you put together,' Harrigan said. "They say, `OK, you make your own car.' It's very technical and definitely complicated."

In fact, it took Harrigan, his father, Michael, and soap box racing legend George Weissgerber six months to build his current masters series car, in which he has frequently competed -- and won -- at weekend racing events throughout the mid-Atlantic region.

The time they put in is worth it: Ryan recently completed the 2001-2002 racing season as both Middle Atlantic regional and national points champion for masters racers in National Derby Rallies Inc., the sport's primary governing group.

This is no small feat, considering that the masters series is the highest level of competition in soap box derby with the most intricate cars; racers must be younger than 20. It's also a little-publicized element of such racing, with the Detroit automaker-backed All-American Soap Box Derby and its qualifying rounds getting most of the publicity nationally.

Today, Ryan will begin his quest for the sport's most prestigious prize, as competition at the weeklong NDR national championships in Saginaw, Mich., commences.

At stake is the title of NDR national champion and a 7-foot- tall trophy which, if Ryan wins, he will have to disassemble to fit in his family's vehicle for the return trip to the River's Edge community, south of Columbia's southern edge, off U.S. 29.

Soap box racers build their own motorless cars and race with gravity providing the downhill speed. The sport has evolved since its beginnings in 1933. Today, nobody puts together cardboard boxes on wheels.

Ryan's car looks more like a futuristic, shiny, fiberglass orb. It weighs 250 pounds, measures 85 inches long and 55 inches at its widest point, and has traveled faster than 40 mph. It fits the driver tightly; Ryan outgrew his first car.

The elder Harrigan said the car's nuts and bolts are aircraft quality, with ballast made of tungsten. During construction, Michael consulted personnel at the Johns Hopkins University physics laboratory.

To race, Ryan -- an incoming freshman at Atholton High -- must lie on his back inside the car and poke his head out of an opening 7 1/4 inches wide.

Because he wears a helmet, he has one-eighth of an inch to see the track during a race, and he cannot see his opponents. The steering `wheel' is more of a metal handle. The brakes are near Ryan's feet.

Knowing one's car and avoiding mistakes are the two most critical aspects of racing, Ryan said. Considering that many races are decided photoelectronically by thousandths of a second, the slightest errors can mean the difference between victory and defeat.

"Driving is 51 percent of the race, and the car itself is 49 percent," Ryan said. "If you are a great driver, you can always get a car. A driver needs experience, which takes longer [to acquire] than getting a good car. The most you have to steer is at the top of the track. You want to harness the crown of the road at the very beginning. That's the most important part of the race. ... The more you race your car, the better you get."

Ryan, who entered the sport at age 9 after his father, a fan of auto racing, discovered it on the Internet, appears to have been a natural from the beginning. In his first race, he finished in the top half of the field; he finished third in his second race.

"When he finished third in that second race, he came home with a trophy the size of which he had never seen before," said Michael Harrigan. "And we said, `Ooh, we like this sport.'"

Today, the basement of the Harrigan house, which contains about 90 trophies, is a shrine to Ryan's success. It has inspired his brother Sean, 7, who recently won his first Soap Box Derby trophy. Sean's stated goal is to win more trophies in the sport than his older brother.

That will be difficult, however. In 1998, Ryan won his first event, and in 2000 he claimed his biggest title at the 63rd All-American Soap Box Derby, held in Washington.

Ryan also has been involved in tryouts for the U.S. Olympic youth luge and skeleton teams.

He plans to continue soap box racing for another year before graduating to autocross (lower-speed sports car racing) and, he hopes, eventually, to Indianapolis 500-type cars.

That would seem logical for someone two years shy of his driver's license, who races with a sticker in his car that reads, "Why am I the only one on the planet that knows how to drive?"

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