Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The crazy world of Mexico City’s Red Bull Soap Box derby

Iran-Contra, Monica Lewinsky, and, of course, Watergate. What do they all have in common? The scandals pale in comparison to the 1973 Soapbox Derby cheating affair, which nearly ended a tradition known all over the world. A car design that included an electric magnet to give an extra jump off the start caused 14-year-olds everywhere to weep at the blatant interference by pesky adults. Luckily, the derby is still rolling along, but such an event will never rock Red Bull’s version of the race, the Red Bull Soap Box derby, as the adult contestants are encouraged to comport themselves like, well, 14-year-olds.

The event’s judging criteria say it all. The winners will be assessed on speed (duh), creativity, and performance. The latter two conditions give the officials wide discretion, and if a racer decides to create and, say, motorize and be first across the finish line, the design and performance better be up to snuff.

(Red Bull Soap Box)
The Red Bull Soap Box race is much more “Wacky Races” than “Formula 1.” (Red Bull Soap Box)

For instance, food-themed cars are always popular. Past examples include giant hotdog cars, frying eggs, and a table set for an Italian dinner while the co-pilot fed spaghetti to the driver. 

As for the performance, most teams have a cheesy dance before mounting the car. These usually include collections of hip-thrusting in skimpy outfits, but one contestant went to the length of having a Jurassic Park raptor fire up the crowd before the dinosaur-themed vehicle burst out of its cage for the race. This earned 33/40 from the judges, so clearly, dancing in a speedo alone is not enough. Mexico is ready to impress the crowds after a seven-year absence from the event, and no group is more prepared than Team Camote. 

The sweet potato cart with a need for speed

Team spokesman Santiago Bladinieres says, “We are going to be the sweet potatoes that are [driving] the car.” Uh… huh?

Those who live in the city limits will be familiar with the ear-splitting whistle that announces the arrival of piping hot camotes. This dish of sweet potatoes baked in a mobile fifty-five-gallon drum might remind ex-pats of the ice cream truck of their youth – that is, if the ice cream truck caused long-term inner ear damage. While the race may see its share of taco, burrito, michelada, or margarita-themed cars, crafting a vehicle that pays homage to such a distinctively local delicacy is an inspired choice for design.

Team Camote Red Bull Soap Box Derby
Team Camote’s (hopefully) winning design for the 2024 Mexico City event. (CR1 Engineering)

The team spent all their free time at CR1 Engineering, where they constructed the car. The workshop gave them access to tools and even welding lessons. Santiago, his brother, and two additional teammates are currently about halfway through construction. They will be ready for the race on April 27 in Santa Fe, where an expected 14,000 fans will arrive early in the morning to set up lawn chairs, enjoy food vendors, and, of course, plenty of Red Bull.

Santa Fe gets ready for the Soap Box derby

This year’s race at Parque La Mexicana is filled with excitement, not only because it has been so long since the last race but also because it is merely the fourth time the race has been held in Mexico. This seems a bit odd, considering Mexican’s well-known love for festivals that lean on the absurd. Forty-five teams registered to compete, and the roster of teams filled in record time. 

Red Bull organizers take pride in the fact that many teams are family affairs, where fathers and sons, moms and daughters, combine skill, showmanship, and craziness to celebrate the race’s return.

But do not think one can pop a toddler into a canister and push it down the hill. Young racers must be at least fifteen years old, while elder racers are free to risk their already long-lived lives.

(Red Bull Soap Box)
Ridiculous costumes are encouraged as part of the fun. (Red Bull Soap Box)

One cardinal rule in the vehicle’s design – beyond the indispensable flair – is the inclusion of brakes. This singular serious stipulation paves the way for entrants to prioritize speed, although it soon becomes evident that some cars might have been better left as blueprints. The spectacle of crashes, particularly those of a ludicrous nature, ranks high on the audience’s list of favorites.

For those planning to attend, an early arrival offers the best vantage points. Photographers, take note: adjust your camera’s shutter speed to at least 500fps. This ensures you capture the whirl of three, four or five wheeled foods as they zoom past at speeds of over 35 miles per hour, creating a feast for the eyes unlike any other.

It may not be Formula One, but when was the last time one of those cars looked like a plate of nachos?

Jimmy Monack is a teacher, photographer and award-winning writer.  He profiles interesting people all around the world as well as writing about and photographing rock concerts. He lives in Mexico City.  www.jimmymonack.com

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