Life is a
blur for Canton resident Samantha Howell once shes belts herself into a
sleek-looking, custom-painted Soap Box Derby car several weekends each
summer and transforms into a middle-school version of Speed Racer.
With gravity serving as her engine, Howell reaches speeds of 45 miles per hour on the sometimes-steep hills that serve as drag strips for Derby enthusiasts from around the country.
"It's very fast," said Howell, a seventh-grader-to-be at East Middle School. "Sometimes I get in the car, I go down and I'm so focused on what I'm doing that I forget how I raced."
That's when she asks her dad, Jim, who is always waiting at the bottom of the hill.
"She'll say, 'How did I do?' and I'm like, 'Straight as an arrow,'" said Jim Howell, a proud smile creasing his face.
Since picking up the hobby over three years ago, Samantha Howell has ascended the sport's Superstocks Division rankings as quickly as she descends the down-sloping tracks. She placed second in the country in the division for the 2008-09 campaign.
WIDE RANGE OF COMPETITORS
Anyone 10 years old to 21 is eligible to compete in the division as long as they can squeeze their frame into the cars' compact cockpits, which can hold up to 160 pounds.
"My favorite hill is the one in (Winston-Salem) North Carolina," said Howell. "It's so steep that you can go as fast as 45 miles per hour. The other ones I race on aren't quite as steep, so you get up to 30 or 35."
With no engine to determine the outcome, competitors rely on their steering skills and the way their car is maintained.
"Before a big race, we'll go over to a friend of ours and spend four hours making sure every screw, nut and bolt and in the shape they're supposed to be in," said Jim Howell. "Races are won or lost by a matter of a hundredth of a second, so you have to make sure your car is well-maintained."
Unlike motorsports racing, girls make up the majority of Soap Box Derby racers, Samantha Howell said.
"It's probably 75 percent girls," she noted.
The sport is not free of accidents and near-accidents.
"This past weekend in Saginaw a kid almost crashed," said Jim Howell. "He went off the track, into the grass and he almost hit the fence before he was able to steer back onto the track."
At the Nationals in Des Moines, Iowa, earlier this summer, Howell qualified for the finals in both races she entered: the Superstocks and the Masters divisions.
She followed that up with a second-place finish at last week's race in Saginaw -- the only city in Michigan that still has a workable Soap Box Derby track.
Ed Wright can be reached at (734)
578-2767 or firstname.lastname@example.org