First-timer takes Soap Box Derby

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Megan Rae sat at the top of Rockies Way in her light blue derby car, wished her opponent good luck and tucked her head. Then she waited for the metal stopper to drop and her car to start rolling.

"It was the most nervous I have ever been in my life," the 9-year-old Steamboat girl said Saturday.

Seconds later, Rae won her eighth race of the day -- the championship round of the fourth annual Soap Box Derby -- and a trip to Akron, Ohio, for the national soap Box Derby finals. In the final race, Rae beat out Clinton Galorath by less than one-hundredth of a second.

The thrill of winning any race was a surprise for the first-time Soap Box Derby participant.

"I thought I was going to lose every single one," Rae said.

This year, Rae saw a brochure about the Soap Box Derby and decided to enter. She worked with her dad, Joel Rae, for more than 20 hours building the car and then doing trial runs on Routt County Road 129.

Saturday's race may have been Rae's first, but for others the Soap Box Derby, sponsored by the Steamboat Springs Rotary and the city of Steamboat Springs, has become a tradition.

For the past two weeks, Mitch Porter said his garage looked like a Wal-Mart storeroom after a tornado. He saw shells of cars, floorboards and several children working on their cars.

Four of the 15 cars that raced in the Soap Box Derby called Porter's garage home before Saturday's competition. The derby cars are assembled from kits provided by the Rotary Club. The cars each have two axels, four wheels, cable-controlled brakes and a steering mechanism, but no engine.

The car and its driver can weigh no more than 230 pounds, and lighter drivers can add weights to their car to hit the 230-pound mark.

That leaves the skill of the driver and the construction of the car as the two major factors for winning.

For Porter, the real work begins after the 20 hours it can take to assemble the car. The hardest work is the paint jobs and the test trials, where cars can be reworked if they are not performing up to par. That can be another 20 hours, Porter said.

"The kids have to spend a fair amount of time. It's not always easy," Porter said and noted the vehicles he has worked on definitely have improved during the years.

For the past three years, Porter has been helping the Campagna children -- Christian, Caitlin and Melissa -- with their derby cars. Last year, Melissa won the Steamboat race and made the trip to Akron.

Christian, 14, was the first in the family to start derby racing in 2001. The next year, Caitlin and Melissa, 13-year-old twins, followed.

For the month leading up to the event, the Campagnas spend considerable time working on their cars and doing practice runs down Rockies Way.

On Saturday, the top of Rockies Way was littered with miniature pit crews, hurriedly cleaning tires and replacing brake pads as racers got into and out of their cars.

Former champion Melissa Campagna shared the secret to a winning run: It's a mixture of luck, she said, and remembering to keep your head low.

"Keep your head down, because then you don't have so much air going into your car, and then it won't slow you down as much," she said.

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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