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Grand prix of soapbox racing

Time Staff Writer

Think of it as the grand prix of Newtonian physics.

This weekend some of the biggest names in motorsports will square off -- quietly -- as part of the fourth Extreme Gravity Racing Series. High-tech, soapbox derby-like vehicles from Bentley (winners of last year’s 24 Hours of LeMans) and Porsche (winners of just about everything else at one time or another) will trundle noiselessly down a 74-foot ramp and onto a 300-foot stretch of asphalt in front of the Ford Motor Co.'s offices in Irvine.

The event, which has evolved from a charity soapbox derby to a showcase for carmakers’ design studios based in Southern California, will also include strange wheeled mosquitoes from GM, Mazda, Volvo and Nissan. Computer-designed and hand-built from exotic metals and aerospace composites, the 88-pound racers can cost as much by weight as Ferraris and Lamborghinis.

The event is the work of Don MacAllister, 41, who began the series as part of an effort to benefit foster kid programs. A portion of the event proceeds go to America Works for Kids, a job program for foster youth. “I grew up in foster care,” MacAllister says. “I’m trying to be an example that foster kids can make it.”

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In the morning, foster kids sponsored by local companies will race conventional soapbox derby cars like those raced at the famous event in Akron, Ohio.

In the afternoon, the big kids come out to play in the Design Team competition.

Porsche’s “Soapboard,” the defending champion, is a kind of ground-based wave rider.

“In Southern California there’s a big surfing culture,” says Porsche spokesman Martin Peters. The designers wanted to pay tribute to the culture, says Peters, and at the same time show off the company’s design-for-hire services. The spindly little car may be the most aerodynamic Porsche in the world. It’s built on a honeycomb alloy armature reinforced with carbon-fiber composites and rolls on super-light wheels like those used in wheelchair racing. The driver lays face-down on the three-wheeler and is zipped into an aerodynamic sleeve made of lightweight neoprene -- the same material wetsuits are made of.

“We put the driver in the prone position because that is the smallest cross-section of the human body to push through the wind,” says Roland Heiler, head of Porsche Engineering Services Styling in Huntington Beach.

But Stuttgart’s silver surfer could fall prey to Bentley’s new “Crewes Missile” (Crewe is the town in the British Midlands where the company is based). Designed and co-driven by Bentley engineer Jim Shaw (and built by fabricator Alberto Hernandez at the So-Cal Speed Shop in Pomona), the Crewes Missile looks like a bike-tire version of the Speed 8 race car that won Le Mans, the 24-hour endurance race in France.

Nissan’s entry is shaped like the cap of a ballpoint pen. Its translucent canopy reveals a frame made of graphite-composite and milled aluminum pieces.

Volvo, meanwhile, is bringing a carbon-fiber racer that with its bullet head, sinuous vanes and trailing braces looks like aerodynamic squid.

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MacAllister wants to spin off the Design Team competition into its own gravity racing series -- the EXG ProSeries. “What we’re doing is launching a new sport,” he says. The automotive design house Pininfarina, as well as Mercedes-Benz and Ford, all had designs in hand, he says, but weren’t quite able to get their cars built in time. Next year, MacAllister says, he hopes to issue new specifications for larger cars -- as much as 9 feet long -- to race on one-mile courses.

For now it’s a sport on the decline. And that’s a good thing.

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Extreme Gravity Racing Series

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Where: In front of Ford’s Premier Automotive Group offices, 7905 Gateway St., Irvine.

When: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday

Cost: $1 adults; children under 12 free.

Info: www.gravityseries.com.

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Dan Neil, The Times’ automotive critic, can be reached at dan.neil@latimes.com.


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