Cooper Harrison was ready for his rookie run in the third annual Fircrest Derby Day.
The helmeted 7-year-old sat tall in the driver’s seat, as he listened to pre-race instructions from his pit crew: mom Mamie and older brother Mac.
“Remember to keep it straight,” Mom cautioned. “And don’t hit the brake until you’re at the bottom.”
Soon race volunteers would release Cooper’s car from a starting ramp and send it plunging down Fircrest’s Electron Way, powered only by gravity.
Cooper was one of about 60 boys and girls registered for the soapbox derby-style racing event Saturday.
Cooper’s older brother Mac, age 11, is already a Derby Day veteran who was racing for the third year. He planned to wear a helmet-cam on his trip down the race course.
“I like it. It’s so much fun,” Mac said. “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose. It’s so much fun to see these awesome cars.”
Derby drivers were divided into classifications based on the type of car – a home-built custom model or an “elite” traditional car – and age groups. Most racers were between 8 and 14 years old, according to race director P.J. Pedroni.
He explained that Saturday’s race wasn’t an officially sanctioned event. The idea was just to have fun: “High-speed family fun is our motto.”
“High-speed” is a bit of an exaggeration. The Fircrest parents who organize the race are learning a bit more each year. Last year some young drivers reached speeds of more than 30 mph, Pedroni said. That’s because parents provided the muscle at the start of each race. And some parents have more muscle than others.
This year, in an attempt at both fair play and safer speeds, volunteer Liam Riley built a wooden starting ramp with a metal release lever designed to provide a more uniform – and moderate – start.
Riley, who works on fire trucks for the Tacoma Fire Department, also does off-road racing in his 1972 Ford Bronco and has a small business manufacturing roll cages and other parts for racing customers.
So it’s no surprise that his 6-year-old son, William, is interested in racing, too.
“I come for the fun, and I try to instill that in him,” Liam said. “It is fun to win. But it’s important to have that attitude that if you win, you win. If you don’t, you don’t.”
Pedroni said he never raced soap box cars as a kid.
“I just used to watch ‘The Little Rascals’ a lot,” he said.
He and a couple of other Fircrest dads dreamed up the derby a few years ago at a backyard barbecue.
“We said, ‘Let’s not just be dads who talk about stuff. Let’s do it,’ ” Pedroni said.
It took some doing, including getting permission to block off a public street for the event. About 30 moms and dads volunteer, keeping cars on course and spectators off it, serving as race announcer and performing other needed tasks. Local businesses chip in to keep costs down. Every entrant gets a T-shirt and a participant medal.
The derby has been growing each year, and Pedroni is already looking forward to next year’s race, scheduled for July 12, 2014.
His 6-year-old daughter, Stella, drove for the first time Saturday. And his 2-year-old son, Sam, is revving up for his future first race.
“All day, he’s been saying, ‘Car. Car. Car.’ ”