Powered by gravity, steered by fun

July 20, 2010

By Kirsten Johnson

More than 50 special-needs children suit up for 13th annual Rotary challenge race

By Greg Farrar Mary Hartung (left), co-driver, waves at the crowds and Caitlin Gaylord, driver, prepares to pilot their gravity car

On July 17, Second Avenue Southeast was transformed into a racetrack as soapbox cars full of grinning children whooshed down the hill in lieu of the usual streams of weekend traffic.

The road was closed off for the 13th annual Issaquah Rotary Challenge Gravity Car Race.

More than 50 special-needs children of all ages came to participate in the race as co-drivers. Each was accompanied by a driver, one- or two-dozen children ages 11-13 who were trained to operate the cars earlier in the day.While cars raced by sheer gravity, each was built with a brake for drivers to use to stop the car safely. Drivers and co-drivers alike had to be at least 5 years old, shorter than 5 foot, 2 inches and weigh less than 130 pounds.

Most of the young racers cited winning as their primary goal of the day.

Morgan Treat, a 9-year-old student at Challenger Elementary School, was participating for the second year in a row. Her parents, brother and sister came to cheer her on as she raced. Treat said she won a trophy last year and was hoping to do the same this year. Her goal was to eventually win 1,000 trophies, she said.

A total of eight soapbox cars raced and each was complete with its own unique detailing. One sported the look of an Issaquah police cruiser. Another was nearly an exact replica of an Eastside Fire & Rescue vehicle.

Leo Finnegan, founder of the Challenge Race 28 years ago, explained that all of the creative designs on the cars came from donated funding by local individuals for private work and paint jobs.

“It’s really amazing how this has grown into a community event,” he said. “And obviously, the special-needs kids really like to say they rode in a police car.”

The event was made possible through the help of more than 50 volunteers.

Organizations that came to help included local Boy Scouts, volunteers from the Athletes for Kids foundation, and members of the Issaquah High School wrestling team.

Sean Novak, the chief wrestling captain and a senior at IHS, explained that the team has been volunteering at the event for the past 10 years. Alongside high school students from Athletes for Kids, they were helping to turn the cars around at the bottom of the hill and load them onto the starting block.

“This event brings us together,” Novak said. “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s all just for fun.”

Natali Shumlak, a freshman at Ingraham High School, served as a driver at the race. Her own younger brother is autistic and nonverbal.

“My dad heard about this and we know that is important,” Shumlak said. “I would want the same to be done for me.”

Carrie Wilbur watched her 4-year-old son Quinn race for the first time at the event.

“He is an adrenaline junkie, and doing something like this, well it’s pretty safe,” Wilbur said.

At this race, each child was a winner, receiving his or her own individual trophy, certificate and picture of him or herself posed in one of the racecars.

“Today is focused on them,” Rotary Club president Greg Tozer said. “Just catch the look on their face as they fly down the hill.”

Kirsten Johnson: 392-6434 or isspress@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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