Gravity — and team spirit — power Rotary racers’ soapbox derby cars
July 17, 2012
By Katie Larsen
Cian O’Farrell, 11, and driver John Morse, 10, ride the gravity car by sponsor Fred Meyer to a checkered flag waved by the Rotary Club of Issaquah’s Fred Nystrom. By Greg Farrar
Viewers lined Second Avenue Southeast to watch — standing or sitting on the bleachers halfway down the block.
The event pairs up children with disabilities and volunteer children drivers to race soapbox derby cars. Gravity pulls the cars down the hill. The vehicles reach speeds of 17 mph.
About 50 children with disabilities got to race three times with rotating drivers and cars. Liberty High School cheerleaders greeted the racers at the finish line before cars were towed back to the starting line.
“It’s a great event for kids to experience a fast, free ride down Second Avenue,” Rotary Club member Russell Joe said. “For some of the riders, it’s the first time they’ve been in a car that’s running on its own without mom or dad.”
Leo Finnegan founded the event when his middle son, Tim, wanted to race with his brothers in regular soapbox derbies but couldn’t because he lacks certain skills to be able to do so.
Initially, Puget Sound Energy helped Leo Finnegan in providing the shells for the cars, the same cars that are used today with different paint schemes.
“Being with kids with mental and physical problems, they don’t get to be the star of the program,” he said. “Here, they do.”
Cars at this year’s event included vehicles bearing emblems and logos of Evergreen Ford, the Rotary Club, the Issaquah Police Department — its car came equipped with flashing lights — Michael’s Chevrolet, Gilman Autobody, the Oak Harbor Fire Department and Eastside Fire & Rescue.
The big sponsor was Fred Meyer, which not only had a car but set up a booth with various activities, including a fishing game and coloring books.
Thea Sullivan, human resources with the Issaquah Fred Meyer, said she read about the race and wanted to get involved. After talking with her store manager, Sullivan said Fred Meyer decided to help sponsor the event and will continue to do so in the future.
“I think the kids’ faces say it all,” Sullivan said. “Just the grins on their faces make it worth it.”
Sullivan grew up with a brother with Down syndrome. She said the event was a great opportunity to get back into volunteering in the community.
Fred Meyer had about 20 volunteers at the event with various jobs. The Fred Meyer car was decorated with Fred Bear and had a video camera attached to the front. The footage will be sent to all racers who rode in the car.
Friends Gaby Webster and Sabrina Peterson volunteered to drive the cars after Webster’s mom, a part of the Rotary Club, said it would be a fun opportunity. Both girls said the smiles of riders were their favorite part of the day. They said they will try and participate every year until they are too tall to fit in the cars.
“I just love these kids, they have such good natures and are always happy,” said Chris Weber, development assistant for sponsor Life Enrichment Options. “There is no downside to this; not even when it rains.”
Weber has a 17-year-old daughter, Sydney, who is autistic and both have been involved for 12 years. Sydney as a rider and now volunteer.
Participants did not go hungry, due to the generosity of local eateries.
Panera Bread donated bagels, cream cheese and coffee. The local Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shop donated ice cream cones. Domino’s Pizza provided lunch.
A Timber Ridge at Talus-sponsored car sat for a photo opportunity across from the registration table.
Leo Finnegan said children having fun is an especially large part of the event but it also allows for drivers to have contact with kids with special needs.
“It gives them an exposure and they find out hey, they aren’t much different than us,” he said. “I think it will carry through most their lives.”
It also gives parents the chance to sit back and relax because the event is planned for them, he added.
Jenny Ramos’ son, Shan, has been a rider for the past three years. Ramos said watching the children have fun is her favorite part of the day, and to spend time with children like themselves.
“Their faces light up down the track,” she said.
This race is just the beginning. This year, Leo Finnegan will take his cars across the state to allow other communities to participate. Locations include Spokane, Snoqualmie, Oak Harbor and Bellingham.
Sullivan said the best part is the fact every racer is a winner.
“It’s like they’re celebrities for the day,” she said.