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SOAP BOX DERBY FIELD IS ON A ROLL GIRLS, 14, FORGES TO VICTORY EN ROUTE TO NATIONAL RACE

Eleven area children spent part of an unseasonably blustery day Sunday spinning their wheels.

They weren't wasting their time -- they were doing it to keep their axles hot and running fast in preparation for runs in the Western New York Soap Box Derby.

Experience may have been the key for Karen Lance of North Tonawanda, who placed first and will go on to national competition this summer. The 14-year-old came in fourth in last year's race.

Twelve-year-old Tim Gunther of Niagara Falls was second, and Danny Primeau, 10, of Clarence was third in Sunday's race, which took place at Grand Island Town Park Nike Base. Derby secretary Shirley Serafin said Grand Island has the only permanent Soap Box Derby track in the state.

Karen will compete for the Junior Division national title in the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio, on Aug. 11.

Two racers from the area will compete in Senior Division races in Elmira on July 7. They could not compete in Sunday's race because the rules require at least 10 contestants to hold a division race.

The contestants were pacing around their cars before the start of the race, partly to relieve nervousness and partly to keep warm.

One driver who appeared especially nervous was Jeff Christian, a WBUF radio personality lined up to compete in the "celebrity race."

"All I know is that they're going to stick me in a car and throw me down the hill," he said, crossing himself.

Before her winning run, Karen said her uncle, Bill Hall, probably had a worse case of jitters.

"I think he's more nervous than me," she said, explaining that her uncle and aunt Judy helped her build her car and her uncle had been coaching her on her driving.

Hall, she said, helped both his son and daughter participate in past derbies.

While Lance said her uncle had inspired her to race, 10-year-old Todd Hoppe from East Amherst said he became interested in the Derby when he saw a Derby display in an area mall.

"I liked the looks of it," he said.

Hoppe said he built his blue racer with help from his father.

His father, Bruce Hoppe, said he participated in the Kalamazoo, Mich., race when he was 11, but didn't qualify for the finals in Ohio.

"So it's a thrill to see the next generation race in the Soap Box Derby," the elder Hoppe said.

It can be an expensive thrill. A kit for a Junior Division car costs close to $300, said derby publicity officer Mary McCombs -- and that's without a paint job.

"You have to have a sponsor" to afford to build one of the 220-pound cars, she said.

Mrs. McCombs said derby car sponsors are usually asked to cover the costs of the car and the paint job, which usually total $300 to $400.

The costs and work appeared to be worthwhile to the parents and grandparents who shivered on the sidelines to cheer on their racers and record the event on film or videotape.

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