Hey, eat my suds

Youngsters compete in soap box derby

Youngsters compete in soap box derby

June 12, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Boston has its marathon, Indianapolis its 500.

But Martinsburg has the ROCS Classic Norwalk Soap Box Derby.

And for the 74 youngsters racing their souped-up soap boxes Saturday, it was a pretty big deal - and the city shut down one of its busiest streets to prove it.

Two by two, the drivers crouched into their cars, heads low to avoid friction, determination etched onto their young faces. The stops on the starting ramps opened, and they were off - rolling down South Queen Street past the library and St. Joseph's Catholic Church, where the street dips a bit, and they started to pick up speed in the final stretch to the finish line, just short of Stephen Street.

It's "sort of" a rush when the car speeds up like that, said 10-year-old Courtney Roberts of Martinsburg, who sat on the curb waiting for her second heat of the day. Each racer drove in at least two heats, one in each lane, to avoid any particular lane advantage, organizer Ron Butts said.


Early on, Lane 2 - the right lane - was producing the most winners.

"It changes from year to year," Butts said. "Today, Lane 2 has been hot."

"Hot" was the operative term as temperatures approached 90 degrees. Yet whole families braved the warmth and the thick, damp air to cheer on their favorite drivers. One woman tethered a small, but impatient black dog as the soap boxes zipped by. The Martinsburg Lions Club peddled hot dogs, burgers and nachos to hungry race fans and drivers alike, but the Rock Hill Creamery, an ice cream shop near the end of the racecourse, appeared to be doing a brisk business.

At the starting line, a number of dads could be seen giving last-minute coaching to the racers.

"Keep your head down - quit lookin'," one said.

"My dad told me to keep it straight," Courtney said.

Martinsburg's soap box derby is enjoying a renaissance of sorts - discontinued after the 1951 race, it was reinstated in 2000. Butts said he's working on getting a dedicated track built for the race so the youngsters won't have to race in the street every year, and he said the idea has generated a lot of community support.

And not without reason - the derby attracts racers from all over the Eastern Panhandle and from Maryland as well. The winners compete in the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio.

Justin Byers, 12, stood next to his parents, savoring his first-heat win. He already had done better than last year, when he lost the first race, the Bunker Hill, W.Va., racer said. For Justin, the derby was a family affair - his older brother, Lance Daniels, raced in the derby during its first two years and placed fourth in 2001, said his mother, Pam Byers. Not that that put any pressure on Justin.

Justin was racing in the super stock division of the derby, designed for older racers. The combined car/driver weight limit for super stock is 230 pounds, Butts said, and the body shell of the cars is a little bigger than in the stock division, where the weight limit is 200 pounds.

But in a race where the only power source is gravity, weight is key - and small drivers are allowed to add weights to their cars to bring them up to the limit. Butts' grandson, he said, was driving with 80 pounds of weights in his soap box.

Soap box racing "has become almost an obsession" for the children that retired Martinsburg policeman Max Mosse was sponsoring in the race. Though none of the five racing in Saturday's derby were directly related to him, they were members of his "immediate adopted family."

His granddaughter, however, was racing Saturday in a master's class derby in Frederick, Md. In those races, the drivers actually lie down in a vehicle that "looks like a darn little coffin," he said. Once inside, the only visible part of the driver is his eyes.

"You wouldn't catch me in it," Mosse said.

Racing while you're sitting up can be tricky enough, steering with only a simple cable under the shell, as 10-year-old Katie Murphy of Hedgesville, W.Va., can attest.

"I was losing control" in her first heat, she said. "I started shaking ... I thought, 'I don't want to hit the hay bale, I don't want to hit the hay bale.'" Katie pulled it out, but lost the first heat.

Putting the derby together requires a lot of work from adult volunteers - Butts said he had been at the race site since about 2:30 a.m. preparing for the race. Mosse, who also volunteers each year, said he does it because "it's a lot of fun for the kids. It's not a matter of winning ... it's a matter of good sportsmanship and having fun. And we don't use a drop of gasoline. It's clean."

But the derby was maybe a little more than fun for Justin, who managed to uphold the family mantle by placing second in the super stock division.

Soap Box Derby results

The winners were ...

The following were the winners in Saturday's ROCS Classic Norwalk Soap Box Derby in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Stock division

· First place - Cody Brindle

· Second place - Mark Fries

· Third place - Bryan Farmer

· Fourth place - Jessica Oester

Super Stock division

· First place - Taylor Garvin

· Second place - Justin Byers

· Third place - Trey Knepper

· Fourth place - Austin Hager

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