Last weekend, the slopes of Mount Mary in Bandra, Mumbai, were taken over by what seemed like a bunch of hooligans with a death wish. What was actually going on was the inaugural Red Bull Soapbox race. A soapbox race is one in which contestants make something vaguely resembling a car and hurl it, along with one of the team members, down a steep slope. There are no engines or other sources of propulsion involved, it’s just the weight of the car and g=9.2 m/s^2 at work. If you emerge from the soapbox more or less unscathed, you could call yourself a winner.
As far as slopes go, this one in suburban Mumbai is right up there with Market Street in San Francisco. It’s one which quite a few cars struggle to climb up, so you can imagine there’s plenty of gravity to move or not move things along! Now there’s no chance that BSM would give an event like this a miss, so we were there with our own soapbox. What happened then?
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For the first ever soapbox race in Mumbai, while there wasn’t really a theme that had to be followed, we figured the city itself was the greatest inspiration we could get. So, we set out on a search to figure out what sort of design captures the character of this city and, of course, that of the team . We pondered long and hard, looked high and low until we gave up and went out for lunch. And then, just as we were about to move on to our fourth course, it hit us! We’ll admit it, food is as serious a topic as cars to us, and the vada pav is as “Mumbai” as it gets. This snack, available at virtually every corner of this city, was even enthusiastically endorsed by Anthony Bourdain when he was here. So it was decided then — we were making a giant Vada Pav on wheels!
Before we could get started on building the soapbox, we first had to quickly make up a few sketches and get them approved by the powers that be. So, with a pencil in one hand and a vada pav in the other, we went about designing it. The main objective of our soapbox was to try and replicate a vada pav as closely as possible. In the pursuit of perfecting the concept, many vada pavs were closely researched by the team (burp) and we perfectly drew Mumbai’s favourite snack — at least on paper.
What do you get when you ask a mechanical engineer, a computer science geek and a pharmacist to build a soapbox? Something that doesn’t look like one, that’s what! The regulations stated that as long as the soapbox racer was not more than 6 metres in length, 2 metres in width and 2.4 metres in height, anything goes. So, the only one real engineer among us, Kyle, was left with chassis design, while Aneesh and I took charge of inventory, which basically meant we had mock sword fights with the metal tubing. Finally, once we had a basic design in hand, we set about making a chassis for it. If someone was observing us in the garage, I’m sure they would have made instant references to the Three Stooges, only instead of ladder gags, we had power tools to play with. I’m just glad none of us emerged with extra holes in our bodies or missing parts. Day one ended and we had managed to build a rectangle! Yep, one full day of work and the best we could come up with was a bed frame! Four more days went by and not much of a change was seen on the chassis’ side, at least from a layman’s point of view. We knew though, that if we didn’t spend all those days bracing the chassis, it would have folded the moment any one of us sat on it. After making many, many modifications to the original design, we finally had a rolling chassis at hand, with a working steering and all. Now to hand it over to Sandeep Kotian, BSM’s trusty art designer who also happened to be an expert thermocol sculptor, to take care of body work. This was possibly the only part of the build process that went smoothly since Sandy actually knew what he was doing.
And finally on the big day, the car was ready, mostly. Let’s go back to the start here for a moment. This race would be judged on three parameters: creativity, showmanship and, of course, speed on the course. We were certainly not going to race our soapbox in civilian clothes, so we hired costumes for the day. Kyle as a constable wearing the now-defunct blue uniform of the Mumbai police, Sandeep as a street-side vada pav vendor and I, er, as the vendor’s wife in a proper traditional Maharashtrian saree. Yes.
Fast forward to race day and we had a car that wasn’t fully complete yet, a performance that wasn’t rehearsed but a concept that was more or less spot on. So we came up with a devious plan. Let’s admit it, with less than top-shelf components, even though the frame was in good shape, there was no way the ancillaries were going down that course without breaking. The only other logical thing to do was to bribe the judges. No, no, it’s not what you think. We bribed the crowd as well.
On race day, before we were set to push Aneesh off the ramp towards certain death, a special delivery arrived. A box full of delicious, individually packed vada pavs to hand out to the crowd. We chucked the snacks to a cheering crowd and to the judges too, who were happy to chomp on our edible bribes. No wonder we were the only ones to get top scores from all of them! It was all downhill from there — literally and metaphorically.
The car came to a grinding halt at the second corner, with one wheel loose. But we went ahead — Aneesh and Sandeep pushing the soapbox, Kyle running behind them, using the policeman’s whistle and waving his baton, while I kept distributing vada pavs to the cheering crowds. We didn’t win, but finished close to the top out of 70 entrants. Given the chance, we’d definitely do it again. Bhel puri, perhaps?