31st annual Challenge Series set to roll Saturday

— Created August 23, 2023 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

Get ready for some exciting action Saturday, as North Whidbey Island Sunrise Rotary Club presents its 31st annual Challenge Series for youth with special needs. Races get underway at 10 a.m. on SE Barrington Drive and spectators are encouraged to come out and cheer on participants.

The Challenge Series is a unique event that pairs able-bodied youth drivers with co-drivers who have developmental or physical disabilities and who would not normally be able to participate in such an activity. Specially built two-seated soap box derby cars are launched at the top of the hill near Island Thrift and race down the hill to the Oak Harbor Post Office, potentially reaching speeds of 30 miles per hour as gravity does its work.

Photo Courtesy of North Whidbey Island Sunrise Rotary
Cars in the Challenge Series downhill gravity races can reach speed of up to 30 miles per hour in their short track down SE Barrington Drive in Oak Harbor. Races get underway at 10 a.m. Saturday.

“It gives special needs kids the opportunity to feel like they are able to do the same thing as other kids, even if they’re handicapped,” said Janis Powell, longtime race coordinator for North Whidbey Sunrise Rotary. “This experience can foster friendships that can last forever.”

Able-bodied youth volunteer to pilot the cars. They undergo about an hour of training and practice just prior to the event. The specially equipped race cars for two have two steering wheels, although only one is functional and is controlled by the volunteer driver.

“Some of the volunteers are returning drivers, others can go to our website (www.whidbeyrotary.com) and they can fill out a form if they are interested in driving,” said Powell. “Drivers can be between 10 and 14 years old and weigh no more than 125 pounds. They do have to pass the driver training, but we give them ample time to practice. Drivers will get to go down multiple times with different special needs youth.

“For a special needs child who wishes to participate, they just have to show up,” she continued. “They must be over age 3 and they must be able to fit in the car comfortably.”

Powell said not only is the Challenge Series a great way for special needs youth to get to experience the thrill of racing, it’s a great way for able bodied youth to gain a better understanding of those with special needs.

Photo Courtesy of North Whidbey Island Sunrise Rotary
Volunteer drivers and their special needs co-drivers enjoy the thrill of speed and competition in the annual Challenge Series, which will take place Saturday beginning at 10 a.m. in Oak Harbor.

“At the very least, it can teach them that you don’t have to be afraid of someone with special needs,” she said.

The Oak Harbor event garners a lot of community support, although organizers would love to have more people come and watch the races to add even more excitement to the experience.

“We get a number of parents and family members, but not a lot of general spectators,” Powell shared. “We’d love to have more. We’d love to have a cheering audience. That’s part of the thrill. What’s the point of being in a race if you don’t have a crowd cheering you on when you cross the finish line?

“Really the whole community comes together and helps put this event on,” she continued. “The Oak Harbor High School NJROTC will carry the flags down the hill to start the event, there will be cheerleaders at the bottom of the hill to welcome the drivers as they cross the finish line and the Oak Harbor Police Department puts up a speed board to see how fast the cars are going.”

This year there will also be a bounce house for kids who are coming out to support a brother, sister or family member and cannot be in the race. There will also be a concession stand serving hot dogs, chips and sodas. It is free for participants and families and by donation for others.

Powell said the annual Challenge Series is made possible by sponsors. Any funds left after the races go toward providing community grants to help meet the needs of special needs youth, anything from helping to purchase a wheelchair to providing doctor-recommended sensory toys or equipment.

Obviously, the Challenge Series can’t happen without these specially designed cars. Eight is the optimal number of race cars needed to put on a Challenge Series event successfully. There are several Rotary clubs around the state that hold their own race events. North Whidbey Sunrise Rotary is working to build its own fleet of cars, so it won’t have to borrow the vehicles from other clubs. But it’s a big undertaking.

“Generally, eight cars is what it takes for a full fleet, then you have to have a trailer to move them around and you have to have the equipment so you can launch the cars from the top of the hill,” Powell described. “Once you get all that, you have to have helmets and safety equipment. It takes about $2,500 to get and maintain a car.

Photo Courtesy of North Whidbey Island Sunrise Rotary
Young racers are gearing up for the 31st annual Challenge Series Saturday in Oak Harbor. The Challenge Series allows special needs youth to race down a hill with an able-bodied driver. Races get underway at 10 a.m. near SE Barrington Drive and Ely Street and are a program of North Whidbey Island Sunrise Rotary.

“We have purchased three new cars,” she continued, explaining that Leo Finnegan, who created the cars and the Challenge Series, gave the group a used car that was in good shape. “Plus, because our group always gives money to the LEO foundation (Life Enrichment Options), [Finnegan] put that into building a couple of new cars, so we have a WhidbeyHealth car that he gave us that has their logo and we have an Oak Harbor Fire Department car. So we have five cars so far. We figure we can do it with six, but our ultimate goal is to have eight cars of our own.”

Powell said the Oak Harbor Lions Club is sponsoring a car this year for $1,500.

“That will go a long way towards helping keep one of the cars going,” she said. “We have two more cars available for sponsorship. One other way to support the Challenge Series would be to split a sponsorship with someone.

For more details on The Challenge Series or to learn more about volunteer opportunities, visit whidbeyrotary.com or email Powell at islandgirl.jan@gmail.com.