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In 1914, Charlie Chaplin's famous Little Tramp made his debut comically and obliviously weaving between young drivers rolling soap box derby cars down a hill in the Junior Vanderbilt Cup. If Chaplin had tried that stunt in 2014 at the adult incline racers' East Coast Challenge, with cars reaching speeds of nearly 70 mph, it's likely he would have been splattered across the road.

The ECC, located in and around Ashland, Pennsylvania, brings together gravity-powered racers from across the country for intense competition of six races down the hilliest roads in the area.

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The Maryland Independent Soapbox Federation and Incline Trials Society, including Carroll residents Fred Schroeder and Ben Powel, will be heading up to the challenge this weekend to test their skills against other racers. The Misfits get together every month for a downhill derby race, using cars they've built themselves. These cars aren't similar to children's derby racers, put together from soapboxes and plywood, but they are designed and welded for maximum speed. Fran Honeywell, a Catonsville resident who founded the Misfits, says their cars can usually hit speeds of more than 60 mph, and are built to professional specifications.

"In the early days it was easy, because we basically had a seat and four wheels and that was it, but then we learned how to go fast," Honeywell said. "In this stage of the game, other than fire prevention, we have all the safety equipment you'd find in a NASCAR racer, from rollbars, to side-impact protection, detachable steering wheels, all of that sort of thing."

The group members travel to the steepest hills around Maryland to test their skill against each other. Following each race, they stop by a nearby restaurant to celebrate and check out the footage shot from the video cameras affixed to each car. Honeywell said initially they would travel to hills early Sunday mornings to avoid drawing any attention, but in recent years, they have been working to get police permission and permits for their races.

The group was founded in 2008 by Honeywell and his wife, who built two derby cars and encouraged others to join them. After a year of racing alone, they decided to build two more cars to offer to people who didn't have their own. Soon, more mechanics and racers joined the group, with a changing group of about ten racers participating in each month's competition.

Schroeder, whose Mount Airy home hosts the annual Memorial Day Misfits cookout and award ceremony, said he and Fran have been friends for a long time, and first joined the Misfits in 2011. Schroeder described the Misfits brand of racing as soapbox on steroids.

"The neatest part is the group involves people from their early 20s to people in their 60s," Schroeder said. "We build this great camaraderie that makes the group closer. We have young ladies who are learning to weld, we have people of a variety of professions. We're all very close."

Powel, 25, of Union Bridge, first joined the group last year and is currently preparing his car for the East Coast Challenge.

"The joy is the thrill of going down the hill fast, and in between the races it's about tweaking the car and trying to make it go faster," Powel said. "I've been paneling mine to try and make it more aerodynamic, and I had to give it a bigger roll bar, because the old one didn't go over my head."

Powel said, though competitive, the other Misfits racers are more than willing to give advice on the best construction of the car, and most of his improvements are based on ideas from Honeywell and the other racers. Powel, who races under the name Shark Bone, drives the Taurus, initially a loaner car built by Honeywell and other early members of the group.

"I think it was originally called the Taurus because its body was just a re-purposed go-kart that looked like a '90s Ford Taurus," Powel said. "I eventually just painted a big bull head on it."

At the East Coast Challenge, racers will compete on six hills in four different classes. The spec class is for beginners, a group of identically built cars that travel more slowly than the rest. The event will also feature the unlimited class for the self-modified cars most of the Misfits drive, gravity trikes for three-wheel racers and the super class — a new addition for 2014. Powel said the super class was created to support racers like a Boeing employee from Georgia who built his car from carbon fiber. Honeywell said these superclass drivers can reach more than 80 mph in their cars.

In addition to the new class, Powel said there have been other changes to the challenge this year.

"Last year, it was a process of elimination, which kind of sucked because in the first race I got caught up on another roller and it stopped me dead. I ended last and was eliminated there," Powel said. "This year, it's points-based, just like a regular championship, so we get to at least ride all of the hills."

At such high speeds, safety is a serious concern for the racers, with strict rules going into the construction of the carts, and the helmets and gear allowed to be worn.

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"I had a pretty severe crash in June of 2013. I shattered the tibia, the fibula and my lower knee, so now I'm the safety advocate in the group," Schroeder said. "I drive the safety car that goes down behind everybody. I carry the medical bag, and all of the personal information in case medics are needed, and a set of jaws if we need to get someone out of their car."

A racing coach, Schroeder said he first became interested in cars and racing when his father took him to the 1967 John Frankenheimer film "Grand Prix" with James Garner.

"That movie profoundly changed my life. I walked out of that movie thinking, 'I need to see those sights, smell those smells and hear those noises. I want to be the guy on the other side of the fence in that car,'" Schroeder said. "If you were a psychiatrist, you'd know I was sick."

Despite the crash, Schroeder said his desire to race was not diminished.

"In the film, somebody asks James Garner, 'Why do you do this?' and, not to sound morbid, but I always liked his answer which went along the lines that to do something that brings you so close to death makes you appreciate life more," Schroeder said. "After my accident, my doctor told me I would be in a wheelchair for eight months and walk in a year. I walked into that office in three months and was back to racing in three months. I finished the hill I crashed on in five months, because I had to finish it. Racing is a nasty lady."

Schroeder said he'd love to see the group grow, and in the past has spoken with Wounded Warriors, encouraging them to participate in Misfits racing.

Honeywell said he encourages people who are interested in joining to check out the group's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/downhillmisfits, but he reminds people to take the fun seriously.

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"When people come and see this, they think, 'Oh, this looks fun,' but come race time, it's serious business, and often becomes more terrifying than fun, because to compete you have to push yourself past your comfort level," Honeywell said. "There's a very close bond, not only from social bonds, but because we're all risking the same injury and harm. In all, though, it's a great time."

Reach staff writer Jacob deNobel at 410-857-7890 or jacob.denobel@carrollcountytimes.com.

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