Friday, October 5, 2007
The Winged Knights of Carlisle go for soapbox glory
A small soapbox car streaks down a steep Brook Street driveway. The blonde, pony-tailed driver, Katrina Weiss, applies the brakes. Phew! They work, and the car stops just short of the road.
The Weiss family — Katrina's parents, Nancy and Mitchell Weiss, and her friend, Adam Bean of Concord — are competing in the Red Bull Soapbox Race in Providence on Saturday, October 13. (Red Bull is a popular energy drink, whose manufacturer sponsors various sports events.)
Strict criteria for building
The Weisses are building their car according to the competition's strict criteria: the soapbox must be human- powered with no engines or external energy sources; it must be less than six feet wide, less than 20 feet long and no more than seven feet from the ground. The car must weigh under 176 pounds (excluding the driver), and the driver must be over 18.
The Mosquito visited the Weisses' home on Brook Street to learn more. How did they get into this? Mitchell Weiss reports wryly, "Katrina says, 'Dad, let's do this soapbox car thing,' and Dad says, 'No problem, that'll be easy. I've got some nice skinny wheels at work.' Then the rules come out — it's got to have steering, brakes; we need wider tires, and suddenly, 'Oh, I'm building a car now!'" Mitchell Weiss is an engineer and chief operating officer of Seegrid Corporation in Lowell.
The Winged Knights are born
Katrina, the motivator and guiding force behind the project, is 23 years old and works as a production manager in her dad's company. "I saw a commercial, saw the race would be in Providence, and I thought it would be fun," she recalls. "When I got the e-mail saying I had been picked, I just sat there in disbelief."
This was in mid-July and Team Weiss got rolling. Katrina is also the designer and brings out her notebook crammed with design concepts, contest rules and notes. "I picked a knight jousting as the theme because Providence is known as the Renaissance City," she explains. "We starting thinking about things like jokers, kings and knights. Instead of a knight on a horse, I put him on a red bull." The team name is the Winged Knights.
Speeding down College Hill
All eyes in the Weiss household are focused on October 13, when they compete with 60 teams from all over the country and speed down College Hill on Waterman Street in Providence at about 36 miles per hour. The teams blaze down the hill, one at a time. Speed is only one of three criteria for winning the race; the other two are creativity and showmanship. "First and foremost, it's a race," Katrina points out, "but they want something very interesting to look at. The ideas are crazy." Among the entries are a Star Trek car, the Rockbiter character from the fantasy movie Neverending Story, and one team named The Agony of Da Feet whose theme is the Harlem Globetrotters.
Carlisle's Winged Knights have a rival team (which is greatly encouraged by the contest organizers). They are from James Madison University in Virginia, Katrina's alma mater, and "they're doing an Oregon Trail Wagon," says Katrina. Tongue-in-cheek jibes and playful threats have been exchanged in e-mails, heightening the fun and competitiveness of the event.
Adam Bean arrives, with Dunkin' Donuts coffee for everyone and bearing a shiny lance he has made for the knight riding the red bull. The Weisses are impressed — it consists of about a dozen blue, red and silver Red Bull cans (empty) laid end-to-end with a pointy tip. Bean is a student at Middlesex College and works as a police and fire dispatcher in Acton. Mitchell has dubbed him the team's "weapons officer."
Showmanship is part of the fun
As if designing and building a soapbox car on a theme weren't enough of a challenge, each team has to produce a one-minute skit and song to be played on the Jumbotron just before the car shoots down the hill. "Our song is the King Arthur song from Monty Python's Spamalot," Nancy Weiss reveals, but she is mum on further details of the skit. As the Winged Knight's costumer, Nancy discloses that "we have medieval knights costumes we bought on the Internet, which we will modify a bit." The knight perched atop the red bull on the soapbox car will be similarly outfitted.
When the car and its driver, Katrina, take off down College Hill on October 13, her team of knights will be cheering at the start-up ramp. Her father jokes, "We'll be yelling 'Faster! Faster!'" "Oh, no," exclaims Katrina, in mock horror.
The soapbox car is wheeled out from the garage, and even though it isn't finished, it is an impressive sight. Mitchell lifts the hood and proudly displays the "engine." There sit six tiny red bull statues — a virtual six-cylinder engine.
Katrina lowers herself into the driver's seat and the car takes off down the driveway for a trial run. "[The organizers] recommend you practice," she says, "but you can't practice there in Providence." On the morning of Tuesday, October 2, the Weisses persuaded Police Chief John Sullivan to close Church Street briefly to enable the soapbox car and driver to experience a longer hill. The car was clocked at 20 miles per hour on the police speed gun. The Carlisle "race track," however, was less steep than the official track in Providence. Katrina Weiss was heard to complain that she went "too slow."
Come see them race
The Winged Knights and their colorful car will go to Providence early on Friday morning, the day before the race. As Nancy explains, "On Friday they do inspections of all the cars, make sure the brakes work, that you haven't installed a motor, and other things. And people will be walking around for the People's Choice Awards before the race."
The winner of the race in Providence will receive a paid trip to a NASCAR event, the second prize is the"ultimate driving day/weekend" and the third prize is a day of kart racing for each team member. The prize for the People's Choice Award for best design remains a mystery.
The Weisses and Bean encourage Carlisleans to attend the race in Providence and cheer on the home team. Details are at www.redbullsoap boxusa.com/Providence-2007 (complete with sound effects and cute animation). The entire weekend is free and promises to be fun. On Saturday, the gates open at 11 a.m. and spectators are invited to mingle with the teams and enjoy a street-fair atmosphere. The race itself begins at 1 p.m. You can view the Winged Knights at www.myspace.com/wingedknights and for further information, you can e-mail the team at email@example.com.
Now, there's only one week to go, and the Winged Knights eagerly await the checkered flag, hoping for racing glory. Whatever the outcome, this family project has sparked laughs, jokes, togetherness and creativity at the Weiss home and has revealed talents long hidden.
Go, Winged Knights — Faster, Faster!
© 2007 The Carlisle Mosquito