Racing by the grace of gravity

Sunday, May 19, 2002

Two at a time, the youngsters crawled into separate cars on Saturday morning that they had spent hours putting together with a grown-up.

Many tugged at confining helmet straps, snapped on darkly-tinted goggles or pulled on racing gloves. Some even exchanged pleasant conversations with their pint-sized opponents.

Then came the signal and it was every child for himself.

"Everybody says it's fun, but we want to win," said 11-year-old Dylan Dee, one of 28 area youngsters who raced in the third annual Cape Girardeau Rotary Club Soap Box Derby held on Sprigg Street next to Blanchard Elementary School on Saturday.

At one point, more than 200 people were in attendance to watch as the boys and girls zoomed down the hill at speeds faster than 20 mph. They leaned forward and crouched low to gain speed.

"That's the way to win," said Even Henry, the 11-year-old who won the derby last year. "You've got to stay low or you're going to slow yourself down."

This year first place went to Nick Austin, a 10-year-old from West Elementary, who followed that advice.

"I was just going as low as I can and I tried to stay out of the cracks," Nick beamed as he grasped the large trophy for first place, which makes him the area's representative at the national All-American Soap Box Derby, held in Akron, Ohio, in July. His strategy will not change.

"I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing," he said. "It's worked so far."

Second place went to Doug Froemsdorf, 11, of North Elementary; third place was Michael McLain, who goes to Alma Schrader.

Slice of America

The lightweight red-and-blue, pinewood cars were powered by gravity, said Rick Hetzel, chairman of the Rotary's Soap Box Derby Committee, which organized the event.

"The All-American Soap Box Derby is a slice of American pie," Hetzel said. "It gives youngsters a chance to work with adults and adults to be role models. And the kids have a great time."

It also raised almost $12,000, which will be given to Safe House for Women, Inc., the United Way, the Boy and Girl Scouts and the Southeast Missouri Network Against Sexual Violence.

"These groups generally help children and that's our focus," said Tammy Gwaltney, who is also on the Rotary committee that determines where the money goes. "We want to give this money back to the community in a way that positively impacts kids."

Gwaltney is also director of the Southeast Missouri Network Against Sexual Violence. Money was raised through sponsorships.

The official Soap Box Derby got its start in 1933 in Dayton, Ohio. In Cape Girardeau, there were soap box derbies for years. In fact, James Garner, 66, raced in a Soap Box Derby in 1946 that was then held on Perryville Road as it approached Broadway.

"It was thrilling," he said. "It's really a wonderful event."

While today's cars come in kits, Garner built his soap box car from scratch with his father. It was a lesson in engineering that stayed with him. He later became a freelance designer, eventually designing an automobile for Corvette.

"So you can see how important the derby was for me," he said. "It's always been etched in my mind. It's going to be the same thing for these youngsters. They'll never forget it."

335-6611, extension 137

[ Browse our photo gallery of the event ]

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