- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 17, 2003

Dreary skies and unseasonably cool temperatures yesterday didn’t quell the enthusiasm of Virginia youngsters who spent most of the day building aerodynamic race cars for next month’s Soap Box Derby in the District.

Twenty youngsters from the Alexandria Olympic branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington teamed up with Home Depot employees who helped the young race-car enthusiasts put together their cars in the parking lot of the Home Depot in Northeast.

The 62nd annual Soap Box Derby is scheduled for June 22 on Capitol Hill, and winners will compete in the National Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio, in July. Home Depot donated 20 Soap Box Derby race-car kits for the youngsters to assemble.

Priscilla Agyemang, 11, and Mike O’Conner, 30, who works at the Home Depot in Annapolis, used the precision of a surgeon when the two installed Priscilla’s steering mechanisms. Equipped with a vise grip, an assortment of bolts, needle-nose pliers, washers and screws, the duo wanted to ensure the car stayed the course.

“We’re putting together a future winning race car,” Mr. O’Conner said, smiling. He checked and double-checked all the nuts and bolts before getting a second opinion from a co-worker.

Priscilla said the idea of building the car for the competition piqued her interest. Priscilla, a fifth-grader from Samuel W. Tucker Elementary School in Alexandria, has four younger brothers, so cars and racing aren’t new to her.

“This is my first chance to build a car. What I’m most interested in is seeing how it will turn out,” she said before unscrewing a large bolt underneath the 75-inch block of pre-cut wood.

A few feet away, Priscilla’s cousin Eddie Sakyi, 11, was busy working on his car. It’s a project the bright-eyed youngster said he very seriously. He enjoys watching NASCAR racing on television.

“I’m having a great time because I really like building cars. It’s fascinating, the way cars are put together and the way they are designed,” Eddie said as he took a break.

He said he admires Tony Stewart, a NASCAR driver. “I think I’ll paint my car orange like Tony Stewart’s,” he said. “Although this is my first time making a car, it’s something I would like to do again next year.”

Eddie’s words get George Weissgerber, 52, revved up.

As regional director of the Soap Box Derby, Mr. Weissgerber has been overseeing the annual D.C. event since 1999. He said car-building activities offer great mentoring opportunities.

“We’ve been here for three hours, and everybody’s working with their hands,” Mr. Weissgerber said. “It’s a great mentoring opportunity. The children are interested and the adults can help. Racing almost becomes secondary,”

The whole point of the derby is teaching children how to read instructions and put things together, Mr. Weissgerber said.

Mr. Weissgerber said each car kit costs about $500.

Children who couldn’t ordinarily afford to participate in the race can take part in the challenge of building and painting their own cars thanks to Home Depot’s donation, Mr. Weissgerber said.

Mr. Weissgerber is something of a pro at building Soap Box Derby cars. He started helping his sons build cars in 1994. So it’s no wonder that he was asked to inspect each child’s project yesterday.

John Reiter, the manager at the Home Depot in Northeast, said he wished he had participated in the Soap Box Derby when he was growing up. Yesterday he got his chance to watch the fun. He said the children showed up in his parking lot ready to go at 9 a.m.

“They showed up ready to build despite the weather,” Mr. Reiter said. “This is the first time Home Depot has participated in the Soap Box Derby. It’s the organization’s way of giving back to the community. This is great, it’s fun and it gives some of our employees an opportunity to work with children.”


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