Angry Bird Droppings clean up at soapbox derby
Among the world’s wackiest competitive events, the Red Bull Soapbox Race is an Ironman: Competitors in this year’s race, held in Los Angeles May 21, included kilted Scotsmen, glory-seeking Spartans, a rolling sushi bar, a group of Lady Gagas and a feathered car inspired by the crazy-popular video game, Angry Birds. Phong Trac, a student in DMU’s public health program, was on that team, which – to his surprise – took second place.
“I’m so happy and exhausted as the past three days I have not slept much,” he e-mailed from California after the race. “We have been running around for media coverage this past week, and last-minute changes and modifications to the soapbox were brutal.”
But apparently effective: Over several months, Trac and other members of team Angry Bird Droppings assembled a steel cage made of discarded construction-site materials and then hatched their “biggest challenge”: building the bird’s frame out of a giant foam block acquired from a retired surf board designer.
“We felt that we should build a soapbox out of recycled parts so as to be environmentally friendly,” Trac says. “Our secret weapon was doing just hours and hours of testing. We pulled the soapbox with my truck and pushed it down a lot of hills. This afforded us the opportunity to fine-tune the chassis and put the shell and frame to the test.”
The team appended “Droppings” to its name to avoid lawsuits from Rovio Mobile, which launched Angry Birds in December 2009. Since then, more than 12 million copies of the game have been purchased from Apple’s App Store – the largest mobile app success in the world so far, according to MIT Entrepreneurship Review.
“We believe it is the equivalent of Pac Man for the current generation of children who play it,” Trac says. “All of the team members are also very addicted to the game.”
Since the first Red Bull Soapbox Race took place in Belgium in 2000, more than 40 – 10 in America – have been held in almost 30 countries. It’s absurdity on adrenaline: In addition to the crazy cars and costumes, teams typically perform skits or dance routines before hopping in their boxes. Still, there are rules: Each soapbox must be powered only by gravity and imagination, measure less than six feet wide and 20 feet in length, be no more than seven feet high and weigh no more than 176 pounds (not including the driver). Drivers must be at least 18 years old. Teams are judged on the criteria speed, creativity and showmanship.
Trac, who’s also pursuing a degree in physical therapy at a local university, was his team’s only non-engineer. But his experience in building vintage motorcycles and interest in extreme sports helped make feathers fly on race day. With more than 110,000 spectators lining the streets, Angry Bird Droppings, steered by team member Nathan Nguyen, conquered the course’s hairpin turns, steep drops and bone-jarring jumps to finish second out of 37 teams. Their prize: ride-a-longs in a 750-horsepower vehicle, in the California desert, with Trophy Sport truck driver and Red Bull athlete Bryce Menzies.
The team used the race to raise awareness about neurofibromatosis, a set of distinct genetic disorders that cause tumors and can affect the development of non-nervous tissues such as bones and skin. As part of that effort, team members raised more than $500 for the Children’s Tumor Foundation prior to the race.
The team’s only disappointment on derby day was that Red Bull dashed their plan to launch Angry Bird plush toys into the audience with a feather canon. In the video game, players use a slingshot to launch birds at smiling pigs, with the goal of destroying the swine.
“Instead, for our on-stage skit, we danced around and chased the pigs after they stole our eggs,” Trac says. “We had a remix of the original theme song build up to the climax until we pushed the soapbox down the ramp.”