The Eastern Avenue "speedway" played host yesterday to four-foot-long racers propelled by gravity at speeds up to 35 mph.

The drivers were 26 area children who had spent the past few months converting fiberglass and lumber into motorless vehicles, preparing for the excitement, tears and fun of this year's Metropolitan Washington Soap Box Derby.

"The whole thing's been great," said Danny Bublitz, 13, of Falls Church, who took top honors in the senior division with a time of 30.14 seconds. "Building it, racing it, it's all been fun," he added. Bublitz won a trophy and a $250 savings bond.

The local derby, held on a three-block strip of Eastern Avenue near Varnum Street NE, is a contest in which boys and girls, from 9 to 15 years old, build and drive their own race cars that are devoid of engines. Only gravity, or traveling downhill, makes them go.

Those who made yesterday's winners' circle will go on to compete in the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio, on Aug. 10.

Jim Jennings of the Downtown Jaycees, organizers of the derby, said that even the losers gain a lot from participating.

"It's a family affair from day one," Jennings said. "Kids and their parents work closely together putting the cars together."

Jennings, a former soap box derby competitor himself, said the derby teaches youngsters how to use tools and to handle the pressures of competition.

More than 500 spectators lined the 970-foot downhill strip, standing behind red picket fences and bales of straw in the 90-degree temperature.

Members of the Stowers family of Baltimore, who have followed the sport for years, were at the race because they had two contenders: Michael, 13, raced in the senior division, and his sister, Cathy, 9, competed in the junior division.

And they dressed for the occasion. Michael, Cathy, their father Jimmy and their mother Shirley wore identical powder-blue sweat suits with white stripes down the sides. Stitched on the back were blue and white patches reading, "Stowers Racing Team."

Jimmy Stower paced about the starter's gate, wearing a radio head set and talking to his wife, who was stationed at the finish line.

"I'm here to win," said Michael Stowers, as he polished the nose of his missile-shaped racer with a towel. "I want to have fun, too, but I want to win. And if I don't, then my sister will win."

Michael finished second in the senior division and received a trophy and a $150 savings bond.

Gregory Pugh, 11, of Springfield, won first place in the junior division and a $250 bond, while Cathy Stower took second place in that division, winning a $100 bond.

"I think about winning," Cathy said. "I don't look at the other driver, I just look at the finish line."

The Hoover family of Fort Belvoir had four youngsters in the races, but all of them -- Dustin, 9, Donald, 14, Douglas, 13, and sister Denise, 11 -- were defeated in the two-car heats.

"This was the first time the kids competed on such a bumpy track," their mother Diane Hoover explained.

Paul Briggs, the Hoovers' next-door neighbor and booster, forecast a better showing for the children next year because "we're going to buy them Corvettes."

Sharon Allen of Northeast Washington and her 6-year-old daughter Alexis shared a blanket in the shade until two racers passed, then Alexis jumped up, waving a miniature American flag.

Alexis was having a good time but complained to her mother, "They're slowpokes." Her mother explained that the cars had no engines.