My Other Soapbox Is Your Ass
Racing Nerds in Rhode Island
The author (in his little cow suit) and some guys dressed up as chickens and an egg.
Do you like Polack jokes? I’ve always been a big fan of them. An Italian, a rabbi, and a smiling Polack walk into a bar. The Polack is holding dog-shit in his hand and says to the bartender, “Look what I almost stepped in!” Classic, right? Growing up I used to l-o-v-e to tell Polack jokes to all the Polish kids in my two-road Polish town in New Jersey. “Aren’t you half Polish?” they’d ask me and I’d say, “No. Half of a half. What’s that? One-sixteenth?” I don’t know how Polish I am. My father, I am told, was an Eastern European mutt and some part of his lab-mouse blood was Polish. My mom is full-blooded Portuguese. So for argument’s sake I now say I’m half-Polish, half-Portuguese, which is such an awful combination—on one hand I have fantastic skin and am very hardworking but on the other hand I do everything backward. (Folks, before you go into a woman’s uterus guns a-blazing, please consider your ethnic background. Do you really think the world needs more Australian Canadians or African Russians? It’s sort of like you’re Dr. Moreau.)
I once interviewed a metal band from Poland called Behemoth. I’d never heard of them and only really wanted to interview them so I could use the setup lines of Polish jokes as the interview questions. I wish you could hear the tapes. The lead singer went for it hook, line, and sinker. “Did you hear what happened to the Polish national hockey team?” I asked. “No,” he said. “They all drowned in spring training!” I told him, biting my lip not to laugh through the phone. He sounded sad when he said, “Oh my God. When did this happen? I have not heard about this. I always read the newspaper and I did not see any mention of this. That is awful.” Oh, he was precious. It was like shooting barrels of fish in a barrel-of-fish warehouse. Things got a bit heated when I asked, “Why do you think the Poles were so easily defeated by the Nazis?” He thought he knew the answer to that one, “My people were unprepared, they had a very small, weak army and weren’t ready for the Nazis.” “Nope, that’s not it,” I said, “The Nazis marched into Poland backward and the Polacks thought they were leaving!” This incensed him. He started yelling. “That is false! That is completely incorrect! I am a history major in university and I know that is not true! It was because our armies were weak and unprepared!” It went on like this for 25 minutes. He never caught on. At the end I thanked him for his time, then said I had just one more question: “How do you keep a Polack in suspense?” “I’m not sure, how?” he said and with that, I hung up on him.
Aaaaaaaanyway, I felt like I was cast in a live-action Polish joke when I agreed to be a judge at Red Bull’s soapbox derby in Providence, Rhode Island. My buddy Jeff Regis, Red Bull’s East Coast head of sports marketing, sent me an email that said, “You, Pras from the Fugees, a drag-car racer, and Miss Rhode Island walk into bar—I mean, will be the panel of judges.” I looked at the list of nobodies, has-beens, and never-weres and laughed out loud; then I thought to myself, Christ! What does that say about me?
What had I gotten myself into? What the hell is a soapbox derby anyway? I mean, really. That’s like some bullshit Boy Scout shit, right? Going to their official website put me at ease (redbullsoapboxusa.com).
Red Bull had created something much more fiendish and delightful than scouts building bullshit wooden racecars. The participants in this event were special. Looking at the images of fantastic, themed, wheeled vehicles of soapboxes past and their flamboyant costumed creators, I knew these were my type of people. They were the nerds, the drunks, the stoners, the good-time guys and gals with too much time on their hands, and they were dressed up like it was the last Halloween ever! Just to give you an idea, the winner of the Seattle race was the A-Team. They re-created the black child-molester van from the TV show and all dressed up as the various “guns for hire.” I thought it only appropriate that I fit in, so I drove to Providence in my Super-Cow costume and wore it the entire weekend.
The derby setup in Providence was like none I’d ever seen before, mostly because I had never seen any derby setups before. They permitted a mile of downhill stretch on Waterman Street and lined it with hay bales and metal barriers for people to eat shit on as they tried to navigate the treacherous turns. The teams were judged on three criteria: speed, creativity, and showmanship. I think it was my job (and the other judges’) to judge on showmanship. I’m not even sure. I had no idea what the hell I was doing. It’s not like I went to judge school. I sat on some stage 20 feet above the crowd laughing the entire time. Fucking Pras thought he was going to use the footage for his reel and was trying to be the Simon Cowell of that shit. He gave low scores and made negative comments to the participants. Not me. I know what the fucking people want. And the people want me to have another beer. I drank the entire day until I was smashed. All the other judges were taking it so very serious while I had a Heineken bottle in a paper bag. And when it was my turn to give a score it was a 10! Always a 10. And every time I held up my 10 the fucking crowd of thousands went ape-shit. I guess Red Bull recorded everything for television and at some point the host (who Pras was trying to F the whole day: “Yeah, baby. You know I have an apartment in Manhattan? You ever been to Manhattan?” Who the fuck has never been to Manhattan, Pras? I mean, it’s not like it’s fucking Bali or some shit!), she comes up to me, puts the mic in my face, and asks why I gave the soapbox that looked like a dinosaur or crab or Flintstones car a 10. I was drunk. I giggled. Then I looked at Miss Rhode Island and said, “I just really like what they’re trying to do for world peace and world hunger.” Then I giggled again. Miss Rhode Island, on the other hand, did not giggle.
The rules of the race, if you care, were: All soapboxes must be human powered, meaning no engines or external energy sources allowed. Prefabricated cars are not accepted. All vehicles must be less than 6 feet wide, less than 20 feet in length, and no more than 7 feet from the ground. And finally, all cars must weigh no more than 176 pounds (not including the driver).
Before the race I walked through the pit, where all 100-plus soapboxes were, to meet each racer and see what the hell was going on (and film a special on the event for VBS.TV). As I made my way through the crowd I saw some handicapped spectator guy with no legs in one of those motorized wheelchairs cruising along. I screamed at him, “You’re a cheater! That’s over the weight limit! And you’re not allowed to have an engine! You’re a cheater!” Unlike me, he did not find my comments funny at all.
I cannot begin to explain or describe how amazing each design was. People put so much time and effort into their Blues Brothers cars, viking ships, Starship Enterprises, and huge lobsters, that you just need to watch the footage to understand. The winners were a team called the Good, the Bad, and the Nerdy and they rode a wheeled calculator to the first-place prize of a NASCAR experience where the team will go to the pit, meet the driver, and attend a VIP party. Second place was Deuces Wild (one of my favorites), a bathroom on wheels with the driver riding in a bathtub, with a copilot (for stability) riding next to him on a toilet, holding on for dear life.
As entertaining as the people and the soapboxes were, nothing inspired me as much as the other judges did. On the drive from the race to the hotel Miss Rhode Island eloquently expressed how much she disliked Paris. “It’s, like, they’re all jerk faces there! Some guy tried to grab my butt!” Then Miss Teen Rhode Island chimed in with the most amazing linear thought: “I’m going to Mexico for Christmas this year.” I looked at her little teenage face, smiled, and said, “Yes. Mexico… the other Paris!”
See Chris at the Soapbox Derby on VBS.tv. For more of his writing, go to Chrisnieratko.com.