McHENRY – Eight-year-old Mike Popp was a little bit nervous as his car raced down Waukegan Road, heading toward the finish line, he said.
The Spring Grove Elementary School second-grader won by a quarter of a second over Abbey Bratek, 10, of Johnsburg, in the McHenry Kiwanis 2013 All-American Soap Box Derby on Saturday.
The two rookies were the last two drivers standing after a series of dual-race heats eliminated the 22 other participants.
All the kids, wearing bicycle helmets and white shirts with "driver" emblazoned on the back, drove simplified cars built from kits purchased from the the national derby association.
The cars – in red, blue, orange and white – are vaguely kayak-shaped, narrowing in the front and back with wheels that look like flying saucers. They have brakes and can steer, but are gravity powered.
Popp's car, sponsored by the McHenry Police Association, had a decal just like the McHenry police squad car his father, Larry Popp, drives – applied by the same company that does the city's squad cars.
Larry Popp discovered the soap box derby eight years ago – before Mike was born – when he worked the event, closing off Green Street so the cars could shoot down the hill to the finish line and then reopening Green Street to traffic.
"I was like, 'I can't wait for my kids to get old enough to do it,'" Larry Popp said. "We just got lucky that he was chosen this year [by the police association]. It's cool. It was an unbelievable experience to watch him go down. It's cute as heck to watch your son go down a ramp and then he's just gone."
Saturday's race was the 11th time the Kiwanis Club has put on the event, said Jim Marinangel, a past president and a Sports Car Club of America race car driver.
"They get the fun and the thrill of driving a car at an age long before they normally get to, and they're doing it in an actual wheel-to-wheel, side-by-side racing," Marinangel said. "It's exciting. It teaches them concentration and discipline. They learn to read the track. ... I think the nicest thing is sportsmanship."
The event is designed to not just be the race. With the parade complete with all the drivers, Little Miss Peanut and a drumline as well as the opening and closing ceremonies, Marinangel's goal was to make it a "little Indie 500."
Any McHenry County resident between the ages of 8 and 13 can participate, and Popp has advice for future drivers.
"You just got to focus, keep your head low and try not to go in bumps," Mike said.
As the victor, Popp walks away with $1,000 to go toward competing in the World Championships in Akron, Ohio, in July.