Hackerspace Happenings: Power Racing Series Gears Up for Maker Faire

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Hackerspace Happenings: Power Racing Series Gears Up for Maker Faire

Imagine grown men and women racing souped-up Power Wheels and similar ride-on children’s toy cars. We’re talking about the Power Racing Series (PPPRS), a hackerspace-centric competition that tests makers’ machining and electronics acumen while encouraging style and moxie. Conceived by Jim Burke of PumpingStation:One, the PPPRS has attracted entries from a bunch of Midwestern hackerspaces including Milwaukee Makerspace, Sector67, i3Detroit, and more.

I interviewed Jim to find out what it was all about:

John: Tell us a little about the Power Racing Series.

Jim: The Power Racing Series is a sort-of racing series where makers and hackers compete with heavily modified children’s electric ride-on toy cars over a gauntlet of races for not-too-incredible prizes. Teams have a $500 budget to convert a stock Power Wheel (or Little Tikes or other brands) and add bigger batteries, faster motors, and a whole lot of moxie to squeeze themselves into their newly christened pint-sized racing machines. They face off in drag races, road courses and a climatic 75-minute endurance race as they beat (with foam swords), break, or sometimes catch on fire in their bid for the somewhat glorious championship.

John: Let’s talk names. How exactly do you get PPPRS from Power Racing Series?

Jim: Remember those Power Wheel commercials from the 90s? If so you may recall, the theme tune with an overly excited voice singing “Pow-Pow-Power Wheels.” So we put that kind of enthusiasm in our acronym: PPPRS (Pow-Pow-Power Wheels Racing Series). Of course, for legal reasons, we don’t actually say Power Wheels Racing, but our abbreviation is our nod to that ad.

John: What sorts of components fail in a PPPRS race?

Jim: Well, It would be easier to list what doesn’t fail on a our power wheels. However, if you are looking for the most consistent points of failure you can look no further than the motors and controllers. The cheap motors most teams run love to fry themselves in the July heat. After that, you would look at structural failures from all the extra weight these machines carry via batteries and other components, not to mention the 140 to 220lb makers at the wheel.

John: What is the Constructors’ Championship?

Jim: We have two championships for PPPRS; one Driver’s Championship and one Constructor’s Championship. The Driver’s tallies both race points and Moxie Points while the Constructor’s takes into account strictly race points. So what are Moxie Points? Well, in order to make sure an actual race doesn’t break out we’ve created a crowd-sourced award system that takes into account audience “votes” for what teams they find entertaining, fun, ridiculous, or even a gallant failure. We usually have a PPPRS official walk around with this nifty Arduino -controlled scoreboard o’ buttons during the race and the crowd can select what teams they prefer. This allows teams to have a good time pleasing the crowd out there, while still rewarding teams for building a successful and fast race car. By virtue of this event, speed isn’t everything, but when you work on a car for a few months it is good to get some recognition for it.

John: Why is the PPPRS such a natural fit with the hackerspace scene?

Jim: PPPRS exists for makers. I simply wouldn’t do this if hackerspaces weren’t in some way involved. Rather, I simply couldn’t do this without them. In 2010, when I was goaded by my hackerspace (Pumping Station: One in Chicago) to continue expanding the series to midwest spaces, I was psyched by the idea of using this over-the-top event as an excuse to meet other hackerspaces.

The purpose of the event is to be a serious enough event for people to really put something cool together, but not nearly serious enough for them to get too competitive. Having that balance results in this immensely creative and collaborative environment, where teams are sharing tools, parts and ideas to get everyone on the grid. Teams want everyone to make it, so even if they fried a motor they’re scrambling to help each other out and get back in the race. I wanted that since day one, and the idea of spaces from all over the country getting together and making is the single biggest reward for putting on this event.

John: I saw that you guys got corporate sponsorship in 2010 but aren’t seeking it for 2011, what’s up with that?

Jim: Honestly? It came down to time. Initially I wasn’t planning on doing PPPRS this year. My friend Jordan Bunker and a few of my other friends set out to shoot a documentary this year on the maker movement called Re:Made and I have been focusing all of my spare time helping film and write for that project. It was hard enough to do that with location travel and work a regular full time job, let alone run this event too. However all the other hackerspaces from the prior season contacted me and asked if I could do it again this year because they had so much fun. So I requested the help from a bunch of spaces, namely CCCKC, i3Detroit and Pumping Station:One to help me run the event for this season.

I really intend to bring sponsorship back for next season, but only when I have the time and focus to dedicate to it. This year I was simply spread too thin, but I’m grateful for all the people, hackerspaces and Make for stepping up to help make this possible. There was no way I could have done it without them. So yes, we are running on a very shoe-string budget.

John: How has the PPRS evolved since 2009?

Jim: We started in 2009 with just members from our hackerspace. It was just six teams, and our cars were barely modified but we managed to have a blast with them. We had access to an empty but derelict dirt lot from our landlord and basically set up the event there. It was a massive amount of work and it was the first time I ever ran an event. It was a hot and sticky August weekend, but we managed with drinks, cupcakes and a DJ. There weren’t many spectators but everyone had a great time.

This year we have over 20 teams. It was overwhelming! We’re getting so many requests now that we will have to cap the field number next year and limit how many entries a hackerspace can enter. The more hackerspaces the merrier. In short, these are great “problems” to have.

John: What PPPRS excitement can we expect at Maker Faire Detroit?

Jim: Look out for Sector 67 from Madison, Wisconsin. They have built quite possibly the most impressive machine I’ve ever seen. They are dominating the series currently but they still have a title battle with Milwaukee Makerspace with Grave Digger and Pumping Station: One’s Cop Bike. Also you have the the home-town heroes from i3Detroit and Omni Corp Detroit, and they’ll be fielding a shared total of seven cars this race. It should be very hilarious because I’ve heard rumors that most of them are not racing for wins, but for Moxie. I can’t forget the family-run team Duct Tape & Zip Ties, who have competed successfully in FIRST robotics competitions and are also in the chase this year. There will also be teams from CCCKC, Hack Pittsburgh, All Hands Active, and a few others.

This season featured three events, with two points races; the first was at Kansas City Maker Faire this past June and we had an exhibition race in Milwaukee in May. Our big finale though is at Maker Faire Detroit, so you will get to see new champions crowned next week.

Come on Saturday to see the drag race and the road course race, which will have 2 heats and a 15 lap elimination round. For those of you who are going to be around on Sunday you will be treated to the massive 75 minute endurance race, where teams make it or bust while pushing the absolute limits of their batteries and motors.

Photo credit: Anne Petersen.

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My interests include writing, electronics, RPGs, scifi, hackers & hackerspaces, 3D printing, building sets & toys. @johnbaichtal nerdage.net

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