The starter waved his green flag, and the two youths launched their cars down the runway toward the finish line 954 feet away.

Specatators pushed close to the fence near the raceway as Rodney Griffith, 14, and Bill Pataky, 13, came rolling down, crouched low in their vehicles, only the tops of their plastic helmets visible.

"Please God, oh dear Lord, let him win," prayed Margaret Griffith, Rodney's mother. "Come on Rodney, come on Rodney!" cried Griffith's grandmother, aunt, mother, father, niece and friends as Griffith and Pataky streaked down the course.

"You can beat him Bill, come on, come on!" shouted Pataky's supporters.

"It's going to be close," Griffith's mother shouted.

Moments later, Griffith's car crossed the finish line, in front by a half a length.

"Oh God," Margaret Griffith shouted. "He won!"

The tension and excitement, the joy and disappointment were repeated constantly yesterday at Eastern Avenue and Varnum Streets NE, site of the Metropolitan Washington Soap Box Derby.

Hundreds of friends, relatives and other race fans came to watch 33 boys and girls, aged 10 through 15, roll their wood and fiberglass cars down the incline in repeated elimination heats, which determined the ultimate champion.

Tension mounted as the slower cars were relentlessly eliminated, leaving few survivors.

It finally came down to Rodney Griffith versus Paul McGowan for the senior division championship.

With a maximum length of seven feet, cars in the senior division are allowed a total weight of 250 pounds with the driver aboard.

Before the final race, McGowan had attained the fastest speed of the day - 29.47 seconds.

"I'm pretty happy," he said just before the final, "but pretty nervous right now."

Tension ran high throughout the races. "I'm nervous and I don't even know anybody in the race," spectator Sidney Lewis said.

Although he did not match his earlier top speed, McGowan, 13, of Rockville, defeated Griffith, also of Rockville, for the gold championship trophy. Griffith took home the silver.

Both were gracious. Griffith thanked his friends and relatives for their moral support. McGowan thanked his own friends and family.

Joseph Voegtli, 10, of Prince Frederick, Md., won the Junior championship, for youths 10 to 13. Dennis Corle, 10, was junior division runner-up.

Besides attributing his success to his family's aid and support, Voegtli noted the importance of his car's "aerodynamics and weight distribution." CAPTION: Picture 1, Rodney Griffith's friends and family await his turn in Metropolitan Washington Soapbox Derby.; Picture 2, The 954-foot race track was on Eastern Ave. NW. By Fred Sweets - The Washington Post