Soapbox cars race down College Hill

Monday, October 15, 2007

An estimated 50,000 spectators watched over 50 human-powered, homemade soapbox cars race a quarter-mile track down College Hill Saturday afternoon at the Red Bull Soapbox Race.

Competitors came from around the country and were scored by five judges on a scale of 1 to 10 based on three categories – creativity, speed and showmanship for each team’s opening skit prior to launching the soapbox.

“This was one of the funniest, most outrageous events I have ever seen,” said Christopher Peck, a Boston College student. “Not every day do I see grown men dressed in tacky costumes racing down a hill in hilariously designed carts.”

The Good, The Bad and The Nerdy – comprising five students from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology – won first place. They dressed in nerdy outfits and drove in a calculator-shaped car named The Numerator 2.0.

“This year’s run was off the hook,” said Anthony Johnson, driver of The Good, The Bad and The Nerdy. “The course was amazing, we almost lost in the last corner of the course but we kept it together.”

The race began in front of the Admission Office, and then racers made a right turn on Waterman Street and proceeded down College Hill.

Each soapbox team consisted of one driver and up to four mechanics, or pit crew. Before the start of each race, the driver and pit crew were required to do a short routine with a song. The skit and song were related to the theme of the cart design and drew some of the biggest applause from the crowd.

Large video screens were set up at the start of the race, at the intersection of Benefit and Waterman streets and at the finish on South Main Street for the crowd to see the races from start to finish. There was one entry from a team of Brown students, a car from the Formula SAE team.

Deuces Wild, a team of five Cornell alums, finished in second, and third place went to team Road Killers, who were decked out in Boston Red Sox apparel.

During Deuces Wild’s skit, the song “Rubber Ducky” blared as the team rolled out its vehicle – a toilet next to a bathtub. Driver Dan Baker dropped his pants, sat on the toilet and read a newspaper as the cart began its descent while mechanic Rafael Dionello climbed into the tub pretending to take a shower.

“Second place is probably best fitting for Deuces Wild,” Baker said. “There’s nothing better than taking a crap going down a hill. It is a bonding experience.”

As the cart sped down the hill at 30 miles per hour, Baker and Dionello, both wearing bathrobes, stayed in character. Deuces Wild was one of the greatest crowd favorites of the day.

“The idea (for Deuces Wild) came when I was straining on a big one on the crapper and I thought ‘Why not? Why not be doing this while I go down on a hill?” Baker said.

The three highest-scoring teams received awards. First place received a VIP trip to a NASCAR race. Second place received passes to drive on a racetrack for an “ultimate driving day,” and third place won a day of go-kart racing.

Alicia Sacramone ’10, a member of the U.S. gymnastics team, served as one the five judges for the event. Red Bull contacted Sacramone through her marketing firm and asked if she would be available to judge, she said. She readily agreed.

“Judging overall was a lot of fun,” Sacramone said. “It was fun being in a different atmosphere since I was a judge and not a competitor. It was really different from gymnastics competition. I liked the creativity portion and talking to the people who made each cart. We got to talk to each team when we were going around judging.”

A special award called the People’s Choice Award was given to the audience’s favorite vehicle, regardless of performance. The Valhalla Express won the trophy, receiving the most text votes from the audience. The Valhalla Express was an ornately decorated Viking boat.

“This is actually from Costco for $7.99,” said a judge, referring to the trophy for the People’s Choice Award.

Most cars reached speeds just over 20 mph. The Good, The Bad and The Nerdy was the fastest vehicle, reaching an average for the course of just over 31 mph. On each turn of the track the audience braced for a crash, and more than a few soapboxes wiped out on the course.

“It was frightful yet funny to see the racers in their ridiculous outfits and vehicles crash into the haystacks,” said Lauren Smith, a college student from New Hampshire.

Getting an invite to participate in the race is competitive. “You have to apply to get into the race,” Johnson said. “This year over 300 applicants, and only the 61 teams got in.” The Red Bull Soapbox Race debuted in Belgium in 2000. Providence is only the third U.S. city to host the event.

Overall, The Good, The Bad and The Nerdy said they enjoyed the atmosphere.

“The people from Providence made it all worthwhile,” Johnson said. “Great hosts. Beautiful town. Beautiful campus. Love it.”

And as for advice to future soapbox hopefuls, Johnson said, “Stay in school and rock trigonometry and aerodynamics. Use your calculators.”