Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Derby racer finds title at end of run

Winning effort is no tall tale for Blake graduate

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Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
Michelle Gregos, 17, of Silver Spring took first place in the Masters Division of the National Derby Rally last month in Muncie, Ind., winning a six-foot-tall trophy. Gregos’ win came a year after she won her division in the Greater Washington Soap Box Derby. The National Derby Rally is the adult version of the All-American Soap Box Derby for children.
Michelle Gregos became nervous as the rain started to fall in Muncie, Ind., before her final race in the National Derby Rallies. One year earlier, she spun out on a slick spot on a track in Akron, Ohio, costing her a chance to win in the All-American Soap Box Derby.

This time, however, Gregos would not be denied once the track dried. With her hair streaked and fingernails painted blue to match her car, Gregos zoomed to a victory in the All-American masters division in her first trip to the nationals, taking a six-foot-tall trophy home to Silver Spring.

‘‘I didn’t want to win or expect to win, but once I got in the top three... I was just determined to win,” said Gregos, 17, who graduated from James Hubert Blake High School earlier this year.

Gregos initially thought her racing days were over following last summer’s world championships in Ohio. But she ran in rallies last fall to qualify for the nationals in late July.

‘‘I didn’t think I would get very far,” she said as she started to laugh, ‘‘but I won.”

Gregos raced downhill in the motorless, gravity-propelled cars against 30 competitors between the ages of 10 and 21 in her division, where the weight of the car and driver must not exceed a predetermined maximum.

In addition to her All-American masters win, Gregos finished ninth in the NDR masters division, which uses older, round-bottomed derby cars as opposed to the flat-bottomed car Gregos drove to victory. The combined efforts were good enough for Gregos to be awarded rookie of the year honors.

The more aerodynamic a car is built for any type of soap box derby race, the better it will typically perform. But unlike at the world championships, where one race determines the winner, the national championships are decided over two races, with drivers switching wheels and lanes between races. As a result, the nationals require more racing skills and less luck than the worlds, said George Weissgerber, Gregos’ coach for her entire three-year career.

Gregos is a very accurate driver, Weissgerber said, able to hit a spot on the track ‘‘the size of a bottle cap” to attain maximum speed.

‘‘I knew she could do well. She’s a good driver,” said Weissgerber, also the mid-Atlantic director for the All-American Soap Box Derby. ‘‘There is a desire beneath that cute surface that will serve her well in life.”

To Weissgerber, the rain delay before the finals only added artificial suspense to the proceedings. Gregos had been running well all day, he said, so he was pretty confident of the outcome. Weissgerber had coached his sons to second- and third-place finishes in years past, but Gregos was his first winner.

‘‘She nailed it,” Weissgerber said. ‘‘There wasn’t any drama in it.”

‘‘I couldn’t believe it,” Michelle Gregos said. ‘‘I was so excited.”

The only potential problem was bringing home her gigantic trophy.

‘‘I had never seen one that big before,” said her father, Noel. Though it took up half the car, the trophy made it home in one piece and stands guard by the front door of the Gregos home, near a windowsill with more than a dozen other derby trophies from past competitions.

The newest trophy also might very well be Michelle Gregos’ last. Though the maximum age for participants at nationals is 21, Gregos does not know if she will have time to race after starting school this week at Mount St. Mary’s College, where she will major in education. While Gregos plans to get her children involved in soap box derby racing in the future, a race this fall may very well be her last. Not that Gregos would be too upset.

‘‘You’ve got to quit while you’re on top,” she said.