Bob Barnes stood in the driveway with his son, J.R., surveying their handiwork.
It is a long, narrow piece of plastic and wood, perhaps 5 or 6 feet long, with an opening in which 12-year-old J.R. will sit. The wheels are a foot in diameter, the exterior is painted silver with fake rivets and a giant Patriots logo is emblazoned over a skull.
They call it the Patriot Missile. Welcome to the world of soapbox racing.
Next month, J.R. will take his gravity-powered vehicle to the Soap Box Derby, the championships of soapbox racing, in Akron, Ohio.
J.R.'s father was demonstrating ways in which the car can be tweaked in preparation for a race. Axles may need to be tightened and lubricated, or torque adjusted. The tires must be kept spinning between races, to keep them warm, and different weights can be placed in the car to make sure it is as heavy as possible.
Winning at the derby is as much about the driver as the adjustments that can be made to the car before the race. There may be "20 to 30 individual things you can change," Barnes explained, depending on what kind of track the car will be raced on.
The track in Akron will be smooth and refined, and J.R. will have to make all of those adjustments.
Racing since he was 8, J.R. qualified for the Super Stock division by accumulating points as he won local races. He has been to Akron twice before, though never as a Super Stock driver.
The last time he was there, two years ago, he placed 18th in the world in stock, the first of three divisions. Masters cars, which J.R. plans to race in next year, go the fastest.
Three drivers will race at once in a single elimination, and J.R. will have to race better than 20 to 30 other kids ages 8-17 to be the champion. In between races, the adjustments will be made to his car by his "pit crew" - aka mom and dad.
"It's exciting, but once you're there you're kind of nervous because you only get one chance," J.R. said.
Once the race begins, he won't steer the car so much as "guide it" down a starting ramp and hill, letting gravity do the rest. For Akron, where the track is 900 feet long and speeds reach as high as 26 mph, J.R. will keep his weight balanced in the center of the car and lean forward, so his head is touching the car to make himself as aerodynamic as possible.
"There are no shocks," said J.R. with a wistful look. "It's 30 seconds of pain. But I'm focused on the road, so the pain goes away. I pick a spot far away, and focus on it."
Soapbox racing is something of a tradition for the Barnes family. J.R.'s father raced when he was a kid and he and his father constructed soapbox cars from scratch out of wood. Now Barnes is a mechanical engineer specializing in woodwork, and he's frustrated car kits today cost $500.
"Back then you just had wheels and axles. That was it," said Barnes. "I was really disappointed that you couldn't make a car from scratch."
Instead, J.R., and Barnes will have to find advantages in other places. When the family makes the 12-hour drive to Akron, they will haul J.R.'s car in a special trailer.
J.R. and his father will walk the track with a lacrosse ball, noting which path the ball takes to determine the best route down. Afterward, said J.R., he'll hit the track for some practice, for in the end, soapbox racing is something to be worked at and perfected.
"It's like any sport," he said. "You train to become better."