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retro racing

Michael Cote and 12-year-old Caitlyn Leaver chat during the Autofest Soap Box Derby in Oshawa. Michael Cote and 12-year-old Caitlyn Leaver are seen during the Autofest Soap Box Derby in Oshawa, Ontario, Sunday, August 17, 2014. (Photo by Kevin Van Paassen for The Globe and Mail)Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Arriving at the soap box derby race on an August weekend, the first impression is one of having emerged from a time machine.

Sounds of the 1950s and 1960s blare over the PA system, while the smells of burgers and hot dogs permeate the air. All that's missing from this soap box derby are poodle skirts, ducktails and a screen showing Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons.

Even the kids inside the retro-looking cars seem like products of an earlier time, with nary a smartphone or iPad in sight as they labour over their equipment between heats. These cars have no engines, with only gravity and driving skill deciding who gets to the bottom of the hill fastest.

It's a sport that many believed had gone the way of doo-wop.

"Often when we have races, people come up to us and say, 'Wow. I didn't think this still existed,'" says Serge Bouthillette, president of the Canadian Soap Box Racing Association, at a recent race in Oshawa, Ont. "Then the next thing you know, their kids want to try it."

Soap box racing is alive and well across Canada, the United States and even in Europe. All across the continent, thousands of kids from 6 to 20 have been competing for points in weekend races, all in the hope of winning trophies or securing an invitation to the world championships in Akron, Ohio.

The Canadian Soap Box Racing Association season comes to an end this month with a series of races to determine the overall points winners: the Niagara Falls Soap Box Derby on Sept. 13; the Canadian Tire Gravity Nationals at Kawartha Downs in Peterborough, Ont., on Sept. 20 and 21; the James Birrell memorial race on Sept. 27 at Kawartha Downs, and the Last Hurrah on Sept. 28 at Kawartha Downs. All race days run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

There's no threat it will overtake hockey, but the low-tech sport is thriving in high-tech times. In many ways, the Norman Rockwell quaintness is a big part of the sport's appeal.

Underneath the need for speed and steely-eyed competition is the fact that this sport is about bonding between adults and kids.

While there are a few hand-made wooden cars, most soap box racers start with a kit, which costs $430 (U.S.), plus another $100 for wheels. While the movies show adults and kids working together, most cars are bolted and glued by adult hands with the kids watching.

The act of cutting wood or Fibreglass and assembling the four-piece cars is usually a bit beyond the grasp of most kids. And the fact is nobody really cares who builds them, because it's the kids who race – and act as advisers.

Caitlyn Leaver and Mike Cote are living examples of that as they feverishly prepare the two cars that 12-year-old Caitlyn will race today.

Their soap-box relationship was born five years ago when Cote, who has been building racers for six decades, introduced Caitlyn to the sport as a favour to a single mother who used to work at his auto parts store in the Peterborough, Ont., area.

The first time she sat at the top of a soap box ramp and rolled down the course, she was hooked. A champion was born.

On this day, there's plenty of work to be done. In a race that is often decided by thousandths of a second, no detail is too small when the racer is hitting speeds up to 40 km/h on this 800-foot course. (They've topped 80 km/h on some tracks.)

Caitlyn and Cote have replaced the brakes, lubricated wheel bearings, adjusted the alignment and ensured the car's weight is distributed to take advantage of the track.

While Cote is doing most of the labour, there's plenty of input from Caitlyn.

"She's raced enough that she can give me a lot of feedback," Cote says. "I don't touch anything until she's said it's okay."

Fairness is the essence of soap box racing, says All-American Soap Box Derby international regional director Bernie Daynes. There was a time when parents could practically buy championships for their kids by adding expensive wheels and other equipment, but that was cleaned up years ago with strict rules and thorough inspections.

"It's not about how much money you have, because the playing field is pretty level," he says.

Still, there are those who try to bend the rules. Twice this year parents have been nabbed tinkering with cars to make them sit lower and go faster.

"It happens," Daynes says. "But it's pretty rare."

Today was a so-so day for Caitlyn. The defending Super Stock champion placed second in both cars and is in a good position to win the season points total with another month of racing to go. The fact she regularly beats older girls and boys doesn't really register with her.

"Beating boys is no big deal," she says. "They're just other racers."

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