Live Fast, Race Young

Soap Box Derby racing runs in the family -- and the Hagans are well aware of the gravity of the situation.

August 07, 2005|By Jonathan Pitts | By Jonathan Pitts,Sun Staff

AKRON, Ohio -- On a bright Midwestern morning, they stood at the top of the hill, the father and son, gazing down the long, steep expanse in silence. The track that sloped away below them -- 900-plus feet of smooth, dedicated asphalt, marked off in three lanes of precisely equal width -- descended sharply at first, then more gradually, toward a finish line that seemed so far away you had to squint to see it through the summer's haze.

Jim and Chris Hagan had been here before -- four times, in case you're keeping track. And just as Nicklaus never yawned at Pebble Beach, nor Lance Armstrong at the hairpin roads in the Pyrenees, here in Akron, in late July -- at the summit of All-American Soap Box Derby racing -- father and son felt, as always, the weight of legend, the lure of possibility.

The rope in Jim's hand was taut as he eased the car down the asphalt. The burly 45-year-old from Ijamsville, near Frederick, lowered it into position atop the metal plate that serves as starting point.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption in today's Arts & Society section says that Chris Hagen raced in regional finals in the soap box derby in Akron. The photo shows preparations for the event in Frederick.
The Sun regrets the errors.

This, he thought, was the fastest car they'd ever built, with its glued construction, streamlined airfoils and fiberglass underside. Even the lane they'd drawn for Saturday's race was one they'd studied many times. Every little thing counted.

Chris, 16, climbed in, lay back until his slight frame filled the car, and replayed the instructions in his mind. Lane 2 has a drop-off just after the start. Find it early, ride it out. Gain speed at the top or not at all.

Jim bent over to snap the boy's helmet into place. Chris gazed through the viewing slit. When the restraining bars came down, his one and only trial run was under way, and he maneuvered right. He found his slope. He felt as if the track were catapulting him.

In half a minute, Chris Hagan shot past the 50 state flags, past the still-empty red, white and blue grandstands, and crossed the finish line at more than 30 miles an hour.

At opposite ends of Derby Downs, one up top and the other below, father and son had a single thought: It was all coming together. A national championship seemed near.

When the top racers from 42 states and five nations lined their cars up in Akron last week, they were facing a star in Chris Hagan. Only five racers in the 68-year history of the Soap Box Derby had qualified for the nationals the maximum six times. The Urbana High junior had never won, but this was his fifth trip.

And they were facing, in effect, three racers in one.

The family tradition began in 1947. The first James Hagan -- Chris' grandfather -- was in his teens when he first climbed into a racer. The "downhill thrill" became an addiction. He raced until he was no longer eligible in his late teens, then channeled his passion into volunteer work as a regional official in Washington. Twenty-three years after he'd started, he took his 10-year-old son, Jim, to a race. Another junkie was born.

"I saw the speed and competition," Chris' dad says, eyes all but spinning like Derby wheels.

Cover Story

"I wasn't eligible for a year at the time, but he put me in a car, and I loved going downhill fast. For the next 12 months, I didn't think about much else."

Some might say he never did. He raced for five years, from 1971 to 1975, building his cars from scratch. He didn't get to Akron until his kid brother, Tom, made it in 1981, but he loved the Soap Box Derby's stated goals. Written in 1934, they are still in use: to "teach youngsters basic workmanship skills, the spirit of competition, and the perseverance to continue a project once it has begun."

What you really enjoy, he says, is the process -- working with your dad, "learning the little things that make a car go faster, spending the time to get things right."

Today, Jim Hagan spends so much time organizing local races, recruiting new kids and parents, and spreading the Soap Box gospel that his home-contracting career and home life can seem like, well, spare-time hobbies. "I used to see this bumper sticker," he says with a laugh you can hear a track's length away. "It said, 'Marriage on hold till Derby season is over.' My wife understands that's an exaggeration. But only slightly."

For Chris, getting involved was as easy as rolling down a hill. He was 8 when he saw what his dad was up to, and he wanted to try it. "Once I got in the car and felt the rush," he says, "I wanted to keep going." The Hagan addiction continued.

The passion of grandfather Hagan, his skill at woodworking, the joy that lit his face when he passed along his secrets -- Jim Hagan has never forgotten these things. Today, he tells Chris what to look for in the slope of a track, the crafting of a joint, the spin of a ball bearing.

"Hagans don't leave much to chance," Chris said with a smile last week. "I benefit from what they both learned, and they know an amazing amount. Anything can happen at Akron, but I don't think I'd want to race against me."

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