Soapbox racers woo fans despite rain

Hundreds came to Manayunk to watch soapbox cars ride down “The Wall,” a hill that scares Lance Armstrong.

Tropical Storm Hanna’s wrath of unforgiving rain and multiple flash flood warnings didn’t stop hundreds of fans from coming out to watch Red Bull’s Soapbox Derby in Manayunk.

They endured the weather to see man-powered cars weave through hay piles and descend a slick and steep hill, better known as “The Wall.”

A steep hill is given a 10 percent grade. The Wall, which stretches on for three miles, was given a steep 17 percent. It may not sound like much of a difference, but that equates to a 45-degree angle.

Soapbox racers barreled down “The Wall,” which Red Bull organizers said was the steepest hill they’ve seen (Tiffany Yoon/TTN).

In 2006, Red Bull began hosting soapbox races in St. Louis. Since then, it has traveled to six other cities, but 2008 was its first year in Philly. The Wall, which even bicyclist Lance Armstrong deems challenging, impressed company representatives.

They said it was the steepest hill they’ve seen yet.

Add that to buckets of rain and pitchers of beer, and it’s hard to deny how daring the fans, let alone the soapbox racers were on Sept. 6.

“We did it just for fun. Just a bunch of friends getting together to make a soapbox car for Red Bull,” said Andrew Natale, driver for team Mean Green. “We crafted it ourselves. We built a frame with a fiberglass shell and dedicated it to our favorite team, the Eagles.”

The cars were decorated ostentatiously, complete with bright colors and matching team costumes. But every last detail, including silly names like Flying Ninja Monkeys, The-Whack-a-mole-bile and Pork Chop Express, was crafted to grab the judges’ attention.

“We’ve been building for a week and a half, mostly nights, and we’ve been hopped up on Red Bull,” said Nathan Taylor, a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers team. “We went through over seven cases, and we made the wings out of Red Bull cans.”

Many teams had Philadelphia-related themes. Mean Green commemorated the Eagles with its name, and The Lightning dressed up like Benjamin Franklin. The lightning bolt was symbolic of Franklin’s kite and key experiment. There was also the Cheesesteak Chariot car, which was crafted as a giant cheesesteak – large enough to fill Big Foot’s appetite. Other teams paid homage to eras in pop culture: for ‘80s fans, Great Scott honored Back to the Future, and for ’60s lovers, the Yellow Submaracers celebrated The Beatles.

Spectators were mostly die-hards, who showed their admiration by enduring unrelenting rain, mud-covered hills and overcrowded streets.

“The fans are insane. Everyone’s crazy,” one member of Fish Stick Frenzy said.

Families living on Lyceum Avenue, the site of the racetrack, planned ahead. They utilized their rooftops and front porches for a better view, making onlookers jealous.

Despite the miserable weather, most fans appeared to be in good spirits – there were plenty of adults drinking and plenty of people playing in puddles.

Judges rated the 36 participating teams on their speed, creativity and showmanship. Finishing first in the actual race wasn’t the only way to win, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

“I went really fast. I was nervous, though,” said Steve Abbonizio, driver for Paddy’s Pub. “I thought I was going to crash, [and] I almost did. Once I held it together, I came around the bend and it was fun.”

At the end of a long, soggy day, Deuces Wild took the gold. The team’s driver, dressed as Michael Jackson, along with his co-pilot, garbed as a baby, dramatically jumped in the air and threw their fists up into the rain-filled sky as they took their trophy.

Another prize worth mentioning, the People’s Choice Award, was granted to Dr. Strangebox, who paid homage to Albert Einstein and nerds.

Tiffany Yoon can be reached at

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