Hill Hosts D.C.’s Soap Box Derby

Posted June 13, 2007 at 5:11pm

Scores of children and their families, blocked-off traffic and the prospect of some uncontrolled driving.

Not an uncommon scene on Capitol Hill, but this Saturday it won’t be an appearance by President Bush or a suspicious package evoking the quarantine. Instead, some 60 kids will hop into their home-assembled vehicles and careen down Constitution Avenue for the annual Greater Washington D.C. Soap Box Derby.

Organizers of the event, now in its 66th year, say it is an opportunity for families to have fun while piquing engineering interest in their kids — for before race day begins, participants must first actually construct their car.

Choosing from one of three sanctioned kits — depending on their class — the kids must assemble their car while taking into account factors such as aerodynamics.

“I guess engineers who want to do things with their kids migrate to this kind of thing,” said the race’s director, Michael Harrigan.

The D.C. race is one of more than 500 local events around the country. The winners go on to compete at the national race in Akron, Ohio, on July 21.

But unlike other races, D.C.’s requires its own measure of politics — for the event to be held on Capitol grounds, an act of Congress is required.

So, as he has done for the past 17 years, now-House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) sponsored a Congressional resolution to allow the event. It passed, unsurprisingly, by voice vote in the House and unanimous consent in the Senate.

“This event has been called ‘the greatest amateur racing event in the world,’” Hoyer said on the House floor while presenting the resolution. “It is an excellent opportunity for the contestants from the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia to learn basic building skills while gaining a real sense of accomplishment.”

And while some may see the race as harkening back to an earlier time of “The Little Rascals,” organizers insist it hasn’t gone the way of phrases like “golly gee” and that the participation is steadily increasing.

While this year’s turnout doesn’t look like it will top the record set a few years ago, Harringer said enrollment has increased by about 20 percent over last year.

It’s a trend mirrored on the national level as well.

Jim Huntsman, CEO and president of the All-American Soap Box Derby, said this year’s national race was expected to draw upward of 600 participants from not just the U.S. but also far-off international locales such as Germany, Guam and New Zealand.

“Contrary to what people believe, the derby is more popular than ever,” he said.

While winners at the local level currently only receive funds to help them participate in the national race, Harringer said eventually he hoped to start a scholarship fund similar to what is given out at the national level.

However, finding funding for the D.C. race is a little more difficult than at other events because the Capitol grounds-use agreements prohibit for-profit advertising.

“A lot of cities have sponsors who sponsor cars,” Harringer noted, adding that for him “it is a challenge.”