Last year the Wheelchair Race of Champions began as a bedraggled group of athletes bunched next to a defunct grain mill off a pebbled side road in a town nestled by the foothills of the Blue Ridge. The starter's pistol didn't work the first time around. And at the end of the race, after 52 miles of blown tires, persistent rain showers and grit-splattered teeth, the racers were greeted by a handful of reporters bundled under leaky umbrellas. What eventually would become the most lucrative and premier race in the nation for long-distance wheelchair athletes did not anticipate its own success.

It was its potential that captivated competitors and sponsors and transformed it into a big event.

While most of the racers are the same, the second 52.4-mile Wheelchair Race of Champions gets underway today at 9 a.m. in Purcellville, Loudoun County, with a much different look. For one thing, it starts smack in the middle of Main Street. And the finish line, which the leader should hit at around 12:30 p.m., is at Freedom Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue, between the White House and the Capitol. There will be victory ceremonies. Days of receptions, seminars and luncheons preceded the race, which brings together the top wheelchair racers in the nation, many also among the best in the world. And organizers raised $250,000 (as opposed to $18,000 last year), enabling them to put four qualifying races into the format and to offer upward of $30,000 in prize money, making a true national championship where before one existed only in appearance.

"Hardee's came to me, which is nice," said race director Bill Fuller, referring to one of the event's sponsors. "One thing I kept hearing over and over again last year was that these athletes make a sport competitive and honorable, the way sports used to be."

Rose Winand is the first woman to compete in this race: an avid team sport athlete, then six years ago a shooting accident victim. She races, or runs, as she calls it, primarily to divert her attention from the nearly constant pain in her back, because, she said, "When my arms hurt, I can forget the {other} pain."

A new sensation replaces an old one and that is the peculiar way of it for most wheelchair athletes. The wheelchair is simultaneously a symbol of their predicament and of their triumph. What separates them is a powerful metaphor of their success.

"The wheelchair, that difference from able-bodied athletes, is {what} has made this such an interesting event," said Fuller. "You've had people who have overcome immense adversity and they're the best in the world at what they do. . . . the struggle of the coming together of excellence and adversity."


AGE: 32.

HOME TOWN: Haleyville, Ala.

OCCUPATION: Professional athlete.

DATA: Kennedy leads Race of Champions series point standings with 225 points (second in Baltimore, first in Harrisburg, second in Pittsburgh) and in 1990 has proved himself a versatile racer. At the World Games Trials in March, he won the 400-, 800-, 5,000- and 10,000-meter races on the track and he won the 1,500 meters in a world record at the Goodwill Games in Seattle. He set the 10K world record at the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta. He was an independent truck driver until an auto accident six years ago left his legs paralyzed.


AGE: 34.

HOME TOWN: Long Beach, Calif.

OCCUPATION: Director of marketing, Captiveair Tire Manufacturing.

DATA: A former pole vaulter, Knaub channeled his energies into wheelchair racing after a motorcycle accident and is one of the top-ranked marathoners in the world. He won the Boston Marathon twice as well as the Los Angeles marathon and the Long Beach marathon. He set a world record for 10,000 meters in the Mobil/Tom Sullivan 10K National Championships, outpushing Kennedy by one second. He also won the Baltimore qualifier race and is second in the Champions standings with 156 points. In last year's race, Knaub's chair lost its support system shortly past Vienna as he was making a run on eventual winner Rafael Ibarra.


AGE: 33.

HOME TOWN: Morningside, Md.

OCCUPATION: Professional athlete.

DATA: Carnes began wheelchair racing in 1987 and after years of near superhuman efforts (137 races and more than 10,000 miles), he says: "I've made it. I'm the threat this year, I've finally made it." So in April he quit his job to concentrate solely on competition. After last year's Champions race, Carnes went on an international tear, winning the Marine Corps Marathon, the International Super Calisia 100K in Poland, the Moscow marathon and the Gdansk half-marathon in Poland. In July he finished third in the 10,000 meters at the World Games in Assen, the Netherlands, and came in fourth in the marathon there. In the Pan Am Games in August in Caracas, Venezuela, he won every track event from 400 meters up. He is third in the point standings with 156.


AGE: 35.

HOME TOWN: Fresno, Calif.

OCCUPATION: Sponsorship and event coordinator for Quickie Designs.

DATA: After winning last year's Champions race, Ibarra won the Portland marathon for the second year in a row then took a break from racing November through March while he played starting guard for the Fresno Red Rollers wheelchair basketball team. He started playing wheelchair basketball at age 16, has used a wheelchair since age 2 after contracting polio. He has been on every U.S. track team since 1984, medaling each time. This year he was team captain of the U.S. team in a mini Tour de France race. The team included Bill Fricke and George Murray and took second place.


AGE: 30.

HOME TOWN: Wilmerding, Pa.

OCCUPATION: College student.

DATA: Winand is the first woman to compete in this race and says it's nothing new, since she regularly competes against men at home in Pittsburgh. Not many women race wheelchairs. She set a course record for women in winning the 1990 Pittsburgh marathon and also won the Harrisburg marathon. Last year she won the Detroit and Parkersburg, W.Va., marathons and in 1988 she won the Marine Corps Marathon. Before a shooting accident in 1984, Winand was an avid team sports player and said she hated to run. Now, she is one of the top women racers in the country and was invited to participate in the Olympic Festival 3,000 meters.