Wheels go round on Barrington Hill

Saturday’s 15th Annual Rotary Club of North Whidbey Island Soapbox Derby Challenge Series for kids was truly a race with miles of smiles.

A large group of local residents, all of them volunteers, began making preparations early in the day by blocking off cross streets, dividing Barrington Drive into two racing lanes with orange safety cones, piling hay bales at the bottom of the hill in case the derby cars failed to stop, and putting up the starting ramp.

It took a lot of willing hands to get the race ready to run. Sunrise Rotarians were assisted by members of the Oak Harbor police and fire departments, city maintenance crews, Oak Harbor cheerleaders and members of the NJROTC color guard. Even the Geico Gecko showed up.

Race organizer Leo Finnegan from Issaquah said he has been involved in soapbox derby races for special kids for the past 25 years.

“We have five children and our middle boy is developmentally delayed,” Finnegan said. “The two younger boys did regular soapbox derby races and Timmy wanted to, but he didn’t have the coordination.”

After a race in Seattle, Finnegan said he heard about someone who had taken a junior car and made it a double-wide.

“I made a wooden one double-wide and Timmy used to race it at the end of the junior races,” Finnegan said. “Of course he beat everyone because the car was heavier with two people in it.”

Finnegan said he thought about offering racing opportunities to other special needs kids and approached Puget Power with the idea.

“I used to work for Puget Power and I asked them if they’d be interested in sponsoring and they were,” he said. “Puget said they would buy the shells for the cars if I would build and maintain them, so we bought eight cars and I put them together.” Today, the company is called Puget Sound Energy.

Racing for the special kids began in Seattle and by the third year, races also were being held in Bellingham, Olympia, Bremerton

and Redmond.

Finnegan said after a number of years, Puget changed management at the racing began dying out.

“I asked the people from Puget what they were going to do with the cars and they said they were just going to put them in storage, so I said how about giving them to me and they did,” he said.

For the past 11 years, Finnegan has organized the racing program himself.

“We currently have three races every year,” he said. We have one in Issaquah, one in Sammamish and the one here in Oak Harbor.”

Preparations completed, by 10 a.m. it was time for the eight blue-shirted kid drivers and the 10 red-shirted volunteer drivers to take center stage.

One of the first cars to head down the hill was driven by 12-year-old David Sipes and co-piloted by Ben Burley.

Sipes said this is the first year he has driven in the race. “I’m excited, but I’m a little shaky about going down the hill for the first time,” he admitted.

A veteran competitor, the 9-year-old Burley said he is in fourth grade at Oak Harbor Elementary School. “We’re gonna win,” he said.

Matched against Sipes and Burley were 9-year-old Garrett Stahl and his 10-year-old partner Johnathan Robinson.

Stahl said he was also racing for the first time but wasn’t nervous at all.

“I did this last year and we’re going to win,” Robinson said.

Standing in back of the starting gate nibbling chocolate chip cookies after their first trip down the hill, 9-year-old driver Kathryn Brown and her partner Alli Hoffmire were happy after their first round of racing — but had some problems at the bottom of the hill.

“I was pushing as hard as I could on the brakes, but I couldn’t get the car to stop. We were like this close to smashing into another car,” Brown said, spreading her fingers a short distance apart.

Finnegan told the young daredevils not to worry, he would have the brakes on the car checked out before their next race.

After two hours of racing everyone was treated to a post-race celebration concluding another successful year for Oak Harbor’s “Miles of Smiles.”

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