These aren't your father's orange crates. They are slick-looking fiberglass and plywood, with an iguana painted on the side, or your name, "Bobbi Lee," or a design as smart as the silk-screen logo on a souped-up rally car.

Youngsters build these soapbox racers from kits, and Barry Evans, 10, of Alexandria, had built his very first. Yesterday morning, he stepped into his $400 machine, which his dad helped him construct from a sheet of instructions, and coasted down a sloping section of Constitution Avenue NW in the 58th annual Washington Area Soap Box Derby.

"It's really bumpy, and you go pretty fast," he said later of his 20-mph ride. Traditions mutate, but the pleasure of speed never changes.

Elsewhere yesterday, Joyce Evans, no relation to Barry, watched her first circus. The 13-year-old resident of East Capitol Dwellings, where tragedies of late have seemed as frequent as hot days, was treated to the show on the grounds of D.C. General Hospital in Southeast Washington.

"They said there will be monkeys and lions and tigers," she said, waiting with about 100 youngsters to see the traveling UniverSoul Circus, billed as the world's only African American-owned circus. The D.C. Health and Hospitals Public Benefit Corp. brought children from the housing complex to the show in the wake of the death last month of Helen Foster-El, who was hit by a stray bullet while trying to protect neighborhood children from gunfire.

Later, Joyce walked into the dark tent, mysteriously lit with blue lights and a glimmering disco ball. "Oooh," she said. She was carrying Foster-El's 10-month-old granddaughter. Together, their eyes filled with the sight of their first circus tent.

James Brown's "Sex Machine" started up, and a spotlight appeared on a midget dancing. The audience clapped and shouted. A group of male acrobats from East Africa tumbled across the stage and began to limbo beneath a burning stick.

Half a sandwich in one hand, Pleasure Phillies, 8, shifted from side to side to get the best view of the fiery display. A boy nearby moaned and put his hand to his cheeks, Macaulay Culkin-style. The whole audience seemed to rustle with fear.

Back at the derby, Sam Evans watched his son from the top of the hill and marveled at how times have changed. There's nothing like the firsts of one generation to provoke the reminiscences in an older one.

Evans, 56, recalled building makeshift contraptions with things he and his buddies found "by hook or by crook." They couldn't afford to buy a soapbox racer kit back then, even if one had existed. They used their own ingenuity because they had to, he said, and he once rode around his small Indiana childhood home in a grocery crate with tricycle wheels.

But change is the way of the world, Evans said. At least building from a kit "really helps the kids learn how to follow instructions." And though soapbox cars may change, the process of discovery does not.

Tara Tomasello, 13, whose father used to organize this Washington event, was 7 when she first stepped onto the plywood planks of her first soapbox racer.

"You get this rush," she said. "It's grown onto me."

CAPTION: Joyce Evans, left, and Kimberly Knight, center, both 13, and LaQuita Anderson, 11, exchange leis as they enter the traveling UniverSoul Circus at D.C. General Hospital in Southeast.

CAPTION: Will Robbins, of Herndon, steers his soapbox car down the derby course on Constitution Avenue NW.

CAPTION: A jump-roping poodle was one of many animals in the act "Olate" to entertain children at the traveling UniverSoul Circus.

CAPTION: Six-year-old Ian Maher, of Potomac, didn't mind that rain interrupted the soapbox derby. Ian, whose brother was competing in the races, used the time to get in some top splashes.