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News Maryland Baltimore County Catonsville

Soap Box racing takes on new, more dangerous form in Catonsville

It was a quiet Thursday evening in Catonsville when Dr. Scope, Tygrys, Crewser, Crews Control, Sharkbone, The Jerm and RaceFace gathered for a cookout, feasting on hot dogs and grilled barbecue chicken.

In their workday world, they are known as Fran Honeywell and his wife, Jola Honeywell; Chris Crews and his wife, Becky Sass-Crews; Ben Powel; Jeremy Ashinghurst; and Nick Alexander.

But away from work, that is how they refer to themselves as members of the Maryland Independent Soapbox Federation and Incline Trials Society (M.I.S.F.I.T.S).

The Catonsville-based group will display its unique skills and different approach to a sport usually identified with younger drivers on July 4 for the first time. Their debut will come during a showcase heat in the Arbutus Soap Box Derby.

The derby will be held at the intersection of Elm and Oakland roads, 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., before the start of the annual Arbutus Fourth of July Parade on Oregon Avenue and East Drive.

"They're an adult group, a local group, that does soap box derby," said TJ Sprankle, organizer of the annual Arbutus race. "We've never had adult racing before."

But these aren't your grandparents' era soap box races. The M.I.S.F.I.T.S. race their custom-built metal cars, which can cost up to $5,000 to build and maintain, down hills ranging from a half mile to just over two miles long. The vehicles can reach speeds up to 60 mph.

"We do extreme soap box racing," said group founder Fran Honeywell, also known as Dr. Scope. "We run all out cars at one time in one big group and we run very fast mountain hills when we can find them.

"It's a thrill. It's frightening," he said. "We don't have that engine. We have gravity; we have a steering wheel; and that's pretty much it."

The group has raced all over Maryland — from Ilchester Road in Catonsville to runs in Ellicott City and Frederick — and up and down the East Coast with other similar groups in New Jersey and Georgia.

Honeywell said he happened to stumble upon a website for the San Fernando Valley Illegal Soap Box Federation in 2008. The unique sport instantly caught Honeywell's interest and, being a former Formula Atlantic road racer, he, along with his wife, jumped in and began to build cars.

"It looked like a really fun, cool thing to do," the Catonsville resident said. "From there, it's just grown."

The first outside the Honeywell household to catch the fever was Jeremy Ashinghurst, aka The Jerm, an electrical engineer for DeWALT.

"When I graduated college and I moved to Baltimore, I had no hobbies," Ashinghurst said. "But then I found a link to the M.I.S.F.I.T.S."

His love of engineering fuels his passion for the sport.

"I think the thing I love most about it is building the cars," he said. "Making them better, making them faster."

Though he said the races are exhilarating, the high speeds and high risk factors can create a tense atmosphere.

"I think when I'm racing down the hill at 60 miles per hour, I'm not thinking about a lot, it's just reflex," Ashinghurst said. "I'm just trying to get myself down the hill in one piece.

"If we're not out of control, you're right on the edge," he said.

Honeywell stressed that safety is the most important aspect of any race the M.I.S.F.I.T.S. sponsor or participate in.

"You have to be very smooth in everything that you do," he said. "You never ever want to use the brakes, unless it's necessary."

Chris Crews and his wife, Becky Sass-Crews, joined the group about a year ago and have made racing a family affair.

"Came down, checked it out, and got hooked," Crews said.

"It's exciting," his wife said. "It's exhilarating."

The Catonsville residents have gotten their daughters — 6-year-old Juniper Sass-Crews and 4-year-old Libby Sass-Crews — involved in racing as well. They often jump in the car with their parents for the fun runs on race days, and Juniper is hoping to compete in the Arbutus Soap Box race, even though she is a year too young.

"They're both very involved," their father said. "It's a big family thing."

He said they are a little nervous about showcasing their skills at the July 4 competition in the neighboring town of Arbutus.

"Apparently, we're the halftime entertainment," he said. "We've never had spectators before.

"We try to keep it pretty low key, pretty quiet," he said.

The group has about 20 members and holds 10 races, about one a month, on the second Sunday of the month from March to December, usually at 7 a.m. Usually about 10 drivers compete in each race.

They use a point system based on the number of racers to keep score. If there are 10 racers, the first place winner gets 10 points, second place gets 9, third gets 8 and so on.

After the first race, run competitively for points, the group hosts "fun runs" on race days before going out to get breakfast as a group wherever they are.

Honeywell said the group has started to occasionally obtain permit for their races, but typically the races are held on public roads without permits.

"Until this year, we've always raced under the radar," he said. "Sometimes we do get permits. We kind of base it on where we're going to run.

"We've never had any police officer be able to tell us we're doing something illegal," Honeywell said. "We normally get a lecture of a 'Wow, that's really cool.'"

He is looking forward to participating in the Arbutus Soap Box Derby to raise interest and excitement in soap box racing.

"We're going to come down in our full gear and roll down the hill," Honeywell said. "We hope we're doing something to benefit his (TJ Sprankle's) event."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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