The Challenge Series Race, in its 17th year in Issaquah, brought out a dozen drivers, and 45 riders on a very hot Saturday.
Racing in a soap box derby is a rite of passage for many kids, but for children with special needs it’s too risky. According to Leo Finnegan, whose son, Tim, is developmentally disabled, he got the idea to build soap box derby cars for two people, about 33 years ago. Tim Finnegan, who is now 47, has raced every year, but the Issaquah race has become the premiere event.
Each heat pairs a developmentally disabled person with one able-bodied teammate, and together they race down the hill on Second Avenue in Issaquah, heads down, to create more aerodynamics. Two cars race in each heat.
But it doesn’t really matter how fast they go, because every special kid is a winner, receiving at trophy at the end.
The race, called “A Special Need for Speed,” features eight cars including ones sponsored by the Issaquah Police, Eastside Fire and Rescue and Fred Meyer.
“We try to make sure each special kid goes down three times,” Finnegan said.
The riders hear about the event by word of mouth and some advertising, said Stan Conrad, the chair of this year’s event for the Rotary Club of Issaquah. Conrad, a commander with the Issaquah Police, is also on the board of Life Enrichment Options, a nonprofit organization that advocates for people with developmental disabilities. He got involved when the race started in Issaquah because, as a police officer, he was contacted by organizers who needed to know how to get the street shut down. LEO and Rotary Club of Issaquah are the main sponsors of the event.
Sam Clayton, 9, has been racing since he was 2. He likes to race to win, he said, and he likes the trophies.
“He has a wall full of certificates because he races in other races, too,” said his dad, Robert Clayton. “He also bowls for Special Olympics.”
The elder Clayton said he’s going to have to build another shelf for all of Sam’s hardware.
The Clayton’s live in Federal Way, but they travel to Challenge Races in several locations.
“It’s absolutely worth traveling for,” said Sam’s mom, Sandy Clayton.
The Claytons like the fact that Sam gets to interface with kids who do not have special needs.
Another boy, Quinn Wilbur, 8, has been racing since he was 4-years-old. Quinn has cerebral palsy, and although he holds his head up better than ever, his mom still made sure his head and neck were supported with a stuffed animal that wrapped around his neck.
“One kid was in a wheelchair, so it was very exciting for him,” Finnegan said.
Indeed, the volunteers were very attentive to each child’s needs, carefully helping them in and out of the cars. Each car has two steering devices so the special child can steer, too, only they’re really not steering because only the driver has actual control of the car.
The drivers are just regular kids from the community. Pam Saito’s daughter, Bridgett, 14, was a driver in her first year.
“She’s having so much fun, she adores this,” Pam said. “Bridgett had expressed interest in working with kids with special needs and she is loving it.”
Challenge Series Races are held in Sammamish and Snoqualmie, plus three other communities. Conrad said LEO is trying to raise money for more cars. The eight cars they have now and the trailer to haul them cost $40,000. However, all the smiles on the faces of these special kids are priceless.