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FOR THE KIDS : Off to the Races for Area Soap Box Derby : Winners will have a chance to compete for the world championship Aug. 5 in Akron, Ohio.


Twenty-seven m.p.h. might not sound fast, but if you're a kid tearing down a steep hill in a homemade racer, it feels like a hundred.

That's the thrill of the All-American Soap Box Derby, which comes to Ventura on Sunday. The young drivers will be racing down Hillmont Avenue beginning at 9 a.m. The stakes are high. The winners go to Akron, Ohio, for the world championship competition Aug. 5.

A world title is not such a far-fetched dream for a local kid: Faith Chavarria of Ojai won one in 1989 when she was 12.

About 20 youths, 9 to 16 years old, will be competing Sunday from Ventura, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo and Kern counties. They'll race two at a time, side by side, down the 800-foot-long straight hill, a racing site since the 1960s.

Gone are the days that youngsters would assemble their cars out of ironing boards, trash cans--or even soap boxes. Now, the racers come from kits, sold by All-American, with the basic model costing about $250. More advanced kits and sophisticated designs from scratch can run up to $600 and take about 200 hours to build.

Kelly Nickerson, 10, of Ventura is racing for the first time this year. His father, Dennis, became intrigued after his son brought home a flier on the derby.

"I always wanted to do this as a kid," Dennis said. Assembling the six-foot stock model became a family project. "It's like a Norman Rockwell picture--it's what America is all about," Dennis said.

Derby officials say the simplified stock kit is supposed to take about four hours to complete, but "it takes one full day to build, if you're not handy--if you're normal," Dennis said.

The car is pretty basic. A board serves as the driver's seat. The little steering wheel is tucked down under the plastic hood, and the brake is a foot-like pad that drags the ground when the driver presses a pedal.

To equalize the field, ballast must be added to the car so that the car and driver weigh in at 200 pounds. In Kelly's car, the front and back ends are loaded with scuba diving weights. During the derby, wheels are traded between runs to prevent any unfair advantage.

Painting the cars exotic colors is not permitted. Only stickers and letters are allowed on the all-white surface. Kelly's car is emblazoned with the name "Headhunter." His parents' business, Survival Systems, is an executive search company.

Although he hasn't raced in a derby, Kelly tried out the car last month during a rally on Hillmont Avenue. It was a bracing experience. He was scrunched down in the racer at the top of the hill, side-by-side with another car. His thoughts at the time? "We're dead," he said.

The derby this weekend actually covers two days. On Saturday, the cars have to be inspected and weighed. Racers also have a chance for trial runs down the hill before Sunday's race, which costs contestants $30.

This year's field of competitors isn't as large as in past years, according to race director Bruce Finwall, director of the California Family Soap Box Derby Assn. Only two divisions will race: the stock division, which attracts mostly younger, beginning-level racers, and the master's division, which features more sophisticated models.

Across the country, soap box derbies are experiencing a spurt of popularity after years of dwindling interest.

"It's coming back," said Jeff Iula, general manager of the Akron-based All-American Soap Box Derby.

The derby got its start in 1933 when a photographer for the Dayton Tribune stumbled onto a group of boys racing homemade cars down a hill. He told them he would return in two weeks to stage a race. About 35 boys showed up for that first race, driving creations made from screen doors, tricycle wheels and clothesline.

The derby moved to Akron in 1934, and from there it flourished, becoming a national event. The sport peaked about 1970, Iula said. But liability insurance began to soar and corporate sponsorship fell off.

In 1992, derby officials began offering a basic, simplified kit that anyone could put together quickly. To purists like Finwall, it's a little sad to see the derby move away from kids using their own ingenuity to craft the racers. "When I was a kid, that's what it was all about," he said.

But Iula sees it differently: "Nineties' people are not good with their hands. They want everything quicker. They can build this in their living room watching TV."


* WHAT: All-American Soap Box Derby.

* WHEN: 9 a.m. Sunday.

* WHERE: Hillmont Avenue, Ventura.

* HOW MUCH: $30 entry fee; spectators free.

* CALL: (310) 544-2811.

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