October 25, 2004
Biomedical engineers lend their expertise to Methodist-sponsored Downhill Derby
By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service
JACKSON, Miss.—For guys who spend their spare time elbow-deep in engines, it sounded like a dream assignment: Build a fleet of racecars for Methodist Rehabilitation Center’s Downhill Derby, set for Nov. 12-13 in Jackson.
But before their enthusiasm could shift into overdrive, Methodist’s biomedical engineering staff learned there was a catch—motors aren’t allowed in this competition. In gravity car racing, the rallying cry is: Gentlemen, start your ingenuity. To win, you’ve got to finagle the forces of downhill momentum.
Fortunately, Methodist’s staff is up for the challenge. The hospital’s pit boss is Bob Hirko of the Reservoir area, who has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. His crew includes enough gearheads to cast an episode of “Monster Garage.”
At work, they repair medical equipment such as wheelchairs, ventilators and IV pumps, plus design and build special equipment for other departments, including the hospital’s research division.
At home, they tinker with a variety of toys. Hirko’s hobby is restoring MGs. Biomedical equipment technician Charlie Moy of Jackson does gardening and photography. Business machine technician and former hot-rodder Greg Lauten of Madison has built boats and several muscle cars. And biomedical equipment technician Tim Love of Edwards has a sharpening and clipper repair business.
“I think we’re overqualified,” Love said. “We all have experience in welding, plumbing, electrical work and home remodeling. And I have worked on high performance cars and heavy equipment.”
Given their McGyver-like talents, the crew had no qualms about tweaking the cars’ designs. So they asked upfront how far they could go. “When we first heard about it, we asked what the rules were going to be,” Love said.
In the more regimented world of official Soapbox Derby racing, “there are more rules and regulations than in NASCAR,” reports Steve Wilson, a Pearl resident whose son Josh recently took up the sport.
Things aren’t so formal for the unaffiliated Downhill Derby, which was begun last year as a competition and fund-raising event for the Andrew Jackson Council of the Boys Scouts of America. Methodist became the title sponsor this year and added a high school competition and a corporate division.
High school competitors will show off their hand-crafted cruisers during a single-elimination competition at 5 p.m. Nov. 12. Scouts will race from 8:30 a.m. until late afternoon Nov. 13, taking a break at 10:30 a.m. to watch local businesses try to beat each other to the bottom line in the Corporate Challenge.
The action will take place on the sloping terrain of the official track—the stretch of Riverside Drive between North State Street and Peachtree Drive.
While most of the Boy Scouts will pilot homespun hot rods made of two-by-fours and lawnmower tires, the corporate cars will be sleek speedsters made from a kit. (Methodist will assemble the cars for companies who prefer not to do their own.) The vehicles feature a molded plastic body, a steering mechanism and a brake.
So far, the Methodist crew members say they’ve resisted the temptation to do too many mechanical modifications. “We found a place that could build motors into the hub of the wheels,” Lauten said. “But we felt we had to stay close to the rules to give other racers a chance to win.”
Methodist CEO Mark Adams says the hospital hopes to have 20 entries in the corporate division this year, and cars are still available for sponsorship. “While this is primarily a fund-raising event for the Boys Scouts, it’s also a great opportunity for businesses to market their services to an important demographic. If you’ve ever been to a Boy Scout event, you know it’s truly a family affair.”
Last year’s inaugural Downhill Derby drew a field of more than 200 cars and a crowd of about 1,000. Organizers say they expect more than 2,000 spectators and competitors to attend the 2004 race.
In addition to the racing action, this year’s event also will include Safety Town, a Methodist-sponsored village that will provide plenty of information on safety and injury prevention.
Methodist Rehabilitation Center hopes to raise $25,000 from the Downhill Derby. The money will benefit the Andrew Jackson Council of the Boy Scouts of America, which served more than 23,000 youth in 22 counties in 2003.
Registration forms and more information about the Downhill Derby can be found at methodistonline.org. The entry fee for high school students is $10 by Oct. 29 or $15 on race day. The Boy Scout entry fee is $20 before Nov. 5 or $25 on race day. Anyone interested in marketing their company through a corporate sponsorship should call 601-364-3451. The public is invited to attend the two-day event—there is no entry fee for spectators.