Excitement builds as kids rev up for derby


At 14, Taylor Knapp of Ellicott City is still a couple of years away from getting his driver's license. But when he's competing in the Soap Box Derby, he's allowed to get behind the wheel. And better yet, he's encouraged to go as fast as he can.

Of course, the car has no engine, but that's a detail.

"I just enjoy the speed," said Taylor, who was tossing a football with fellow racers Oliver Schaller, 10, and Sean Harrigan, 11, while their dads put the finishing touches on the cars last week.

"It's kind of like a roller coaster, but not that fast. It's like a fun roller coaster that's not scary and you can steer."

Tomorrow, Taylor and 46 others, all between the ages of 8 and 17, will see just how fast they can go as they race down Constitution Avenue in small plastic cars in The Greater Washington Soap Box Derby. In past years, the cars have been known to reach 27 miles per hour as they travel over the approximately 800-foot course, two miles faster than the speed limit for that particular stretch of road.

The Washington event, celebrating its 65th year, will draw kids from as far as Annapolis, Waldorf and Rockville, said Mike Harrigan, who has been director of the race for 10 years. Last week, the fathers gathered at the Harrigans' home in Columbia to make sure the cars were ready to go. "Since there is no engine, anything that causes extra fiction will slow us down," Harrigan explained as he worked.

Kathy and Mike Harrigan's older son, Ryan, has collected a basement full of trophies during his 10 years in the sport. Last week, his younger brother, Sean, was preparing to race. Sean has 25 trophies, he said, and his goal is to win more than his brother.

Known as the "Gravity Grand Prix," the Soap Box Derby has changed since 1933, when a group of boys in homemade cars raced down a hill in Dayton, Ohio. According to a history on the derby's Web site, no proof has been found that one of the cars was made from a soap box, but it seems likely, since they were all crafted from salvaged items such as orange crates and baby buggy wheels.

Since then, the derby has evolved into a big sport, with pages of official rules, several competitive circuits and trophies that are typically larger than the kids.

The racers compete in sophisticated plastic cars that must be made from kits purchased from the nonprofit International Soap Box Derby. The kits, which start at $430, include the body of the car (which can be decorated), floorboard, axles, brakes and steering assemblage, but not wheels, delivery or ballast. Those cost extra.

It typically takes three to five hours to assemble the kits, Mike Harrigan said, but many fathers - and their kids - have been known to tinker endlessly. "We fiddled with them all spring," said Adam Schaller, who saw a Soap Box Derby when he was a boy and got his son into the sport a year ago, he said.

But the race itself is simple: Two cars zoom downhill against each other on a track or course; then they switch lanes and do it again. The average of the two times determines the winner. It's a double elimination competition, so in the second heat, winners race winners and second-placers race second-placers. This continues until there is one winner and one person in second place. They then race each other.

The winner receives a trophy and other prizes.

But the real prize is the opportunity to compete in the All-American Soap Box Derby, held every July in Akron. This year it's scheduled for July 22. Akron's 989-foot track is considered a speed-demon's dream - its record time: 26.953 seconds.

Racers can qualify by competing in local derbies, such as the Washington event, or by amassing points at rallies around the country. In the local races, the winner automatically qualifies for Akron, regardless of the number of points earned.

Mike Harrigan explained that Soap Box Derby racers from around the country have to compete in the geographically closest race. More than 170 communities nationwide hold a Soap Box Derby.

For 16 years in a row, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer has sponsored a resolution allowing the race to take place on Capitol Hill.

The Akron event, in which Ryan Harrigan competed in 1999 and 2000, is wrapped around a week of festivities, including workshops, celebrity appearances, parades and other entertainment.

Mike Harrigan said nobody from the Washington circuit has won in Akron, but "since 2000, we've had a top 10 finish every year." About 550 cars from the United States, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Guam and the Philippines compete in several divisions, he said.

The races can be terrifying for the parents, especially when they continue into the night and it's impossible to see the cars from the sidelines, said Kathy Harrigan, mother of Sean and Ryan. "The one in North Carolina is really scary," she said. "They go 40 or 50 miles an hour."

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