Are you ready to take the hack to the track? Situated squarely at the center of the maker racing universe is none other than the Power Racing Series. This celebration of engineering prowess invites teams (from hackerspaces and beyond) to heavily modify a Power Wheels-type children’s toy, on a budget of no more than $500, and then race against other teams who’ve done the same.
But getting creative with the build and mod are not the only requirements for winning: there are also points for moxie. The more you can please the crowd — with, say, wearing a Stormtrooper costume or having a vehicle that shoots flames or makes banana daiquiris — the more moxie points your team earns. And basically what ensues is hilarity and good, clean maker fun.
The Power Racing Series has been a staple of good times at Maker Faire since their debut at the inaugural Maker Faire Detroit in 2010. And the 2014 season opener is taking place this weekend, on May 17 and 18, at our 9th annual Maker Faire Bay Area, the world’s largest DIY festival.
Check out this Season 6 video for a taste:
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Of this year’s series, event organizer Jim Burke offers: “The big hook this year is our new regulations, which will make the racing closer and more exciting! We’ve made our engineers suffer further this season with a power limit in the form of fuses, so teams will have to get clever with their workarounds and cheating to make the grade! Also moxie is worth more than ever with a huge points advantage for teams to build cars listed in our rules, for example the Ghostbuster’s Ecto 1 (must have that annoying horn), The Scooby Doo Mystery Machine (costumes required), KIT from Knight Rider (must be Trans Am body, must have Mr. Feeny’s voice), Bruce Willis floating taxi cab from The Fifth Element (the more realistic that floating bit is, the better).”
Last year, the 2013 season ender was held at World Maker Faire New York in September. Right after the races, I had the chance to chat with Jim. Here’s a video clip:
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The Power Racing Series was also the cover feature story in Make: magazine Volume 33 (January 2013). We showcased notable vehicles, ran a PPPRS timeline, and an interview with Jim. Below is an excerpt.
How did the (“Pow-Pow”) Power Racing Series (PPPRS) get its start?
We started the series in 2009, and held our inaugural event in a dirt lot that the landlord of our hackerspace owned. We had just six teams, all from Pumping Station: One [a Chicago hackerspace], and the cars were nearly stock machines. Friends and a bunch of kids from the neighborhood showed up, but it was a really small event. I don’t think more than 60 people attended.
The main inspiration came from one rather active evening when a member dragged a discarded pink Jeep from the back alley into PS: One. We shoved larger batteries in it and drove on the roof of our space until somebody suggested that having more of these around would be fun. Then I said something about racing them, and a few drinks later we pretty much wrote the basic rules.
How have the races evolved since 2010?
The one thing that has really changed is the level of creativity the teams are reaching. The cars are getting really interesting. We have wheelie-popping, trailer-hitching, power-sliding, drink-dispensing, water-dousing $500 electric race cars, and every season some hackerspace ups the ante.
On the organizational end, the biggest changes we’ve seen have come from improving how we run the event. I’m a graphic designer, so event management is probably the farthest I could be from any level of expertise. After a few years of trial and error, I’d like to think we have things sort of, mostly under control. Mostly.
Besides driving fast, what else gets points on the track?
Ah, the moxie points! Those are literally the crowd favorite. Basically we have an Arduino-controlled board of buttons that gets sent out into the crowd, and next to each button is a team. When the crowd pushes a button, that team is rewarded actual race points for doing whatever the crowd finds entertaining. It’s up to the teams to find ways to entertain everyone. This can be comprised of acting silly, popping wheelies, epic passes, or simply catching on fire. The goal is to encourage social engineering; you want teams to not only work the mechanical end of this series, you want them to figure out how to read a crowd. I think that social engineering is just as essential to a hackerspace competition as physical engineering.
What are some favorite cheap but awesome mods you’ve seen?
J-Squad, one of the first teams, built their car around a $200 starter motor off a semi truck. There isn’t really much logic to this; the car is an automatic drifting machine. The crowd really gets riled up when they see a kid’s toy power slide through turns. Sector67 started water-cooling their brushless motors last season. Now several teams are equipped with similar systems. In 2011 they debuted the first wireless telemetry system that reported motor temperatures and other data to their pit crew. I think it was also equipped with GPS, but since that was over budget it was disabled during the race.
Why hack an existing platform instead of building a machine from scratch?
Well the easy answer is: you can’t have a hackerspace motorsport without hacking! I really think there’s massive value in building from scratch, but there’s also another larger series of benefits that come from taking apart something and repurposing it. We could just have people make electric go-karts and dump as much money in them as possible and call it a day. To me, that’s boring, and reserved for a more legitimate racing series. I want people to take something that was never intended to be modified in this way and use a minimal budget to make it happen. Some of the best bouts of creativity come from constraints, and we live in a world full of constraints! We should just condition ourselves to try and fail and then learn. Hacking apart stuff is pretty much the easiest and cheapest way to do this. It’s something we all need.
What do you think is the key factor in the recent growth of hackerspaces?
Community. You need to have a strong community. Variety is just as important. Hackerspaces are an exponential force of creativity and require a relatively healthy mix of tinkerers, hobbyists, and professionals to work. I also think the modern economic climate has really benefited from this growth. The lumbering state of our country, coupled with a growing resentment of apathy and pessimism in my generation has really helped too.
Makers my age seek the knowledge of the past to look toward the future. We ask our elders the long-forgotten trades and give these skills a renewed purpose. The econo-mics of mass production has helped us scale things down to a world of affordable customization. Frankly, if things keep going the way the’re headed, you’ll see a rebirth of manufacturing in the U.S. the likes of which we’ve not seen previously. I honestly feel that we’re on the verge of the next great cultural industrial revolution, and the seeds for this prosperity are right in our neighborhoods at our local hackerspaces.
How has hosting the event at Maker Faires affected the race?
MAKE magazine has literally helped make this sort of event even remotely possible. Between all the staff, such as Sherry [Huss], Dale [Dougherty], Louise [Glasgow], and Jonathan [Maginn], we’ve had help from day one. They’re fantastic to work with! They showed us the ropes, gave us the advice and help we needed, and then delivered the track and logistics. We simply could not have done it on our own. They really made sure we could perform as we needed and taught us a great deal. I’m glad we reached out to them in Detroit 2010 because I feel every year we work with Maker Faire we become stronger and more prepared to put on a good show. After all, at the end of the day, it’s about going out there and showing the crowd how fun making can be. What better way than to get a bunch of hackerspaces together at Maker Faire?
Where do you hope to take the series, literally and in essence?
I try to take things one year at a time, but I’ve certainly considered what it would mean to keep doing this for many years to come. If that is a real possibility, I want to make this event an arena for education. With the help of sponsorships, I want to get high schools into the series and have hackerspaces mentor the development of their teams. I want to help foster inexpensive and fun education with real-world trial and error, all within the confines of a local hackerspace. Deep down, all I really want is for the hackerspace community to continue supplementing education, with my little series contributing toward a larger goal of having hackerspaces — these great bastions of learning — teach communities.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about hosting an event of this magnitude?
That it’s absolutely impossible to do this without friends or a community of people who believe in you. If I were to list all of those who have helped me over the years, it’d take up a few pages. Their enthusiasm keeps me going through the rough parts of organizing. I have to give a shout out to Patrick Callahan, though, who helps out tremendously.
Here’s something else important I’ve learned: anyone can do this. Seriously, there’s nothing stopping you from going out there and doing something like this. Yes, you. This is really for anyone out there who’s swamped in the doubt and uncertainty that never stops bouncing around in your head — you just need to silence those thoughts and do it. Get an idea, talk to people, refine it, fail a ton, and make it happen. There’s no time better than now. Go find a community, get involved, and be the person you’ve always wanted to be.
Wondering why Power Racing Series’ acronym is PPPRS?
Ready to witness the creative mayhem? Come join us this weekend, May 17 and 18, at Maker Faire Bay Area, and get yourself a front row seat to the races!