College kids up to speed at Red Bull contest

His skin was scorched after spending hours in the sun, but on Sept. 6, Russell Jones, senior mechanical engineering major, returned from the Red Bull Soapbox Derby with no claim to a title, but the second fastest time, and a great story to tell.

First held eight years ago in Brussels, Belgium, the annual Red Bull Soapbox Derby has produced 35 races all over the world. The competition calls for teams of four – a driver and three “mechanics” – to build and then race non-motorized carts downhill against other competitors.

Each team had to follow specific dimensions. Their vehicles had to be less than 6 feet wide, less than 20 feet in length and no more than 7 feet from the ground, while weighing no more than 176 pounds, not including the driver. To avoid a disaster at the bottom of the hill, brakes for the vehicle are strongly recommended.

As Jones’ experience demonstrated, winners were selected for more than just their course times. Judging was divided among three categories: speed, creativity and showmanship.

Accompanying Jones in the competition were Kevin Lancaster, senior philosophy major, Sarah Sickels, sophomore biology major and Tim Magee, senior physics major.

For the four teammates, the experience started in June, when Jones, a Web junkie, read about the competition on a local blog. Intrigued, Jones, along with approximately one hundred other hopefuls, submitted the one-page application with a rough sketch of his proposed cart.

“Really all the credit goes to Russ,” said teammate Lancaster. “He submitted the entry, built the car and raced it.”

In fact, Jones admits he didn’t tell his friends their names were on the application. “I didn’t think we’d actually get in.”

Sure enough, one month later Jones was notified the committee had reviewed his application and accepted it. Since Jones hadn’t expected to “actually get in,” he had to scramble to build the vehicle. Most of the cart was built in August, but Jones “left a lot until school started,” and had to go home Labor Day weekend to finish the project.

Straw bales lined the 0.4 miles of Lyceum Ave, also known as “The Wall,” in Manayunk, Pa.

Crowds of spectators lined the streets of the free event to watch a total of 36 participants speed downhill.

According to Jones, most spectators were “not sober, under 30, college people (and) Eagles fans,” making for an interesting interaction between those racing and those standing on the sidelines. “If they didn’t like you they’d throw more (straw),” Jones said.

The team’s name, “Ride the Lightning,” was inspired by former Philadelphia resident and historical figure Benjamin Franklin – a theme the group reflected with their period costumes.

The 130-pound vehicle’s frame was made of 14-gauge steel, brakes and steering taken from Jones’ childhood mountain bike. Instead of using bicycle wheels as most of the other cars did, Jones purchased wagon wheels to use on his car. As a final touch, Jones attached a bell to ring during the race and rally the crowd.

What did the winner get? No cash prizes – it was “all for the glory.” His Red Bull project had no affiliation to the College, so all expenses involved in building the vehicle came out of Jones’ pocket. Some of the perks of the trip included two free nights at a hotel, free Red Bull, souvenir caps and meeting other car enthusiasts.

When asked if he’d do it again, Jones said, “Hell yeah … if they do another one in Philly.”