Amid epic political gridlock this spring, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) introduced a bill to allow the Greater Washington Soap Box Derby to go forward. The race, in which kids in motorless cars square off in pairs and try to channel their inner NASCAR racer, takes place on Capitol property and thus requires permission from Congress to run each year. We asked derby director Steve Danahy for some insight into the sport that’ll be shutting down a piece of Constitution Avenue Saturday morning.
“When I was a kid, they’d give you four wheels, two axles and a steering wheel,” Danahy says. These days, kids build the cars from regulation kits to keep the playing field level. They even swap wheels (so no one sneaks in nicer ones) and lanes (in case the terrain varies slightly) between races to make sure the champion wins solely on skill. There are three divisions: stock car (geared toward younger drivers), and super stock car and masters, which are different styles of car both meant for kids ages 10-17.
The unpowered cars run on gravity alone, which means the distribution of weight is important. “You can have [the car] tail-heavy, nose-heavy or neutral,” Danahy says. Another deciding factor is the driver’s position. The correct stance is leaning forward, peering over the “hood,” to be as aerodynamic as possible. “The higher up you are, the more wind resistance you provide,” he says.
The Paint Job
Stock cars come in red, white and blue, and occasionally other shades — Danahy says he’s encountered pink and black. Kids aren’t allowed to paint stock cars, but stickers are OK. Drivers can paint super stock cars (Danahy’s kids favored classic hot rod flames); masters cars, which are made of fiberglass rather than plastic, are often elaborately painted.
The race takes place on D.C.’s most famous hill, Capitol Hill, starting at Constitution and New Jersey avenues NW and ending at the intersection of Constitution and Louisiana avenues NW. Danahy takes it upon himself to make sure the track is in good shape. “Saturday morning I’ll be out there with Bondo, patching up the potholes,” he says.