Hot Wheels 

The All-American Soap Box Derby rolls down the Hill

Young hot-rodders have spent months or, in some cases, years getting ready for this Sunday. That's when they'll finally get the chance to test their homemade Soap Box Derby cars against each other in a day of "gravity races" down Macklind Avenue on the Hill.

Ten-year-old Kevin Sutton of Shrewsbury won third place in the stock division of last year's race. His car was struck by another boy's car in a freak accident last year, so he and his father have had to make a number of repairs, Kevin reports. They also had to remove some weights from the car to compensate for Kevin's growth.

Kevin says that the wooden launching ramp at the beginning of the race is "steep" and that "you kind of get, like, a big jolt" when the gates are dropped and the car starts to roll.

He adds that "the coolest thing" about his car is its decoration: "the stickers on it have, like, fire and mufflers, and it's, like, shooting out fire, you know?"

Overseen by the All-American Soap Box Derby organization, the local races permit children ages 9-16 to buy kit cars to make the building of their racers much easier (although many in the masters division build their cars from scratch). The kit and other expenses run somewhere between $400 and $500, so many families get companies to help sponsor their children's cars.

Races are held in three divisions: Stock is for beginners and younger kids, super stock is for intermediate racers and the masters division is for experienced racers who feel confident enough to design their own cars (with Dad's help). In the first two classes, the racers lean forward in their cars, trying to position their helmets as closely as possible to the dashboard to cut down on wind resistance. The masters racers typically lean back in their missile-shaped cars and steer from a recumbent position.

At the St. Louis races, there are only two lanes. After each one-on-one race, the entrants swap the standard-issue Soap-Box-Derby wheels on their cars, in an attempt to be as fair as possible, and race again. To decide winners, judges total the elapsed times of the two runs that make up a heat. Lose two heats, and it's back to the garage.

Win your division, and you're headed to nationals in Akron, Ohio, which has hosted the championship races on a monstrous hill for nearly 70 years. St. Louisans Herbert Muench and Anita Jackson won it all in 1936 and 1984, respectively.

Locally, about 30 kids will take their turns racing along a five-block, 1,000-foot stretch of Macklind Avenue. They will reach a top speed of around 30 mph, according to organizer Joe Faber of the St. Louis Jaycees, as they pull in for some typically close finishes. "A lot of these races are decided by less than a second," he says.

This year's festivities include an "Oil Can" race featuring oversized cars driven by local celebrities and a classic car show at nearby Shaw Visual and Performing Arts Elementary School, 5329 Columbia Ave. The focus of attention, however, will be the unforgiving finish line.

"The kids can get emotional toward the end of the day," says Faber. "There will be some tears for the kid that finishes second by a nose."

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