Operation Hot Wheels

Far away in the Middle East, soapbox racing flies the hearts of military persons back home.

In the spring of 2003, I watched in delight as 10 midget racecars—one shaped like an airplane, some rolling on gigantic wheels, all handmade of used hardware and scrap wood—barreled along a makeshift half-mile course carved in the desert. A crowd lined the route, braving hundred-degree heat to watch this unique soapbox derby in the midst of a war, on an air base far from home.

We had arrived at the small aerodrome, tucked away in a remote location in the Middle East, on a blazing hot morning in March. The cargo door of our KC-135 Stratotanker opened with a hum, and we braced ourselves against the inrush of scorching heat and sun. We scrambled down the crew ladder to the concrete ramp and breathed the desert air. Nine other airplanes would touch down around us, unloading another 100 maintenance troops to join our initial contingent of 20. We were all Air Force reservists, activated and immediately shipped overseas to support combat operations during the first months of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Many of us barely had time to say goodbye to family, friends, and employers; none of us knew how long we’d be gone.

The air campaign for Operation Iraqi Freedom kicked off within two weeks of our arrival, and our squadron worked 12-hour shifts, day and night, to keep our Boeing KC-135 tankers flying. Airplanes were launching and landing within minutes of one another. We repaired the broken ones as fast as we could, towing them in careful zigzags around our tiny piece of the ramp. We installed new brakes, filled fuel tanks, swapped out malfunctioning equipment, and signed off each job by rubbing the airplane’s belly for good luck.

But after the mid-April fall of Baghdad, our workload slowed considerably. Soon we found ourselves with too much time on our hands and not enough to keep us occupied during off-duty hours. The base had a well-stocked recreation center, but the troops could take only so many movies, pool tournaments, and video games. People were getting restless.

As squadron commander, it was my job to gauge the morale of the troops. We weren’t going home anytime soon. We were thousands of miles from our families, with a mission that was slowing by the day. Our aircraft maintenance personnel were good with their hands. Many of them loved to build things. I racked my brain for a project that would engage everyone.

I was terrible at driving manual-transmission vehicles, so of course I had been issued a pickup truck with a stick shift. One night, prompted by my lurching around the base, grinding the gears and praying I wouldn’t stall out, the proverbial light bulb went on.

I talked to my squadron, and with their enthusiasm ringing in my ears, I drove up the road to pitch the idea to my boss. The worst he could do was to laugh me out of his office.

“You want to do what?” he said.

“A soapbox derby race,” I said. “Like we did when we were kids.”
He adjusted the glasses perched on his nose and thought for a minute. “What would the cars be made out of? There’s no hardware store around here, you know.”
“Scrap materials around the base,” I replied. “Old soda cans, pieces of plywood, sheet metal, string, whatever we can find.”
He nodded. “Tell me more.”
“We’ll form teams of four people each, and do it as a relay race around the camp,” I went on. “One person will push the car, and another will sit in it and steer. At each checkpoint they’ll switch out so the other team members have a turn in the driver’s seat.”
“It’s nuts,” he chuckled. “Go for it.”
One of my fellow officers, Chuck, volunteered to help. He penned rules for the race, tacked up sign-up sheets at the recreation center, and challenged everyone to draft blueprints for cars. People laughed at the idea, but its very oddness proved appealing. A list of names grew on the sheet.

By the registration deadline, 10 teams had submitted construction plans. Our civil engineers supplied tools and basic construction materials. For the next month, the chatter and whine of power tools, hammers, and handsaws echoed throughout the camp. Overnight, airmen became craftsmen, turning out car parts one by one: wooden wheels carved by hand, frames fashioned from castoff plywood, steering mechanisms strung with knotted bungee cord. It was off-the-cuff engineering at its finest.

On race day, we unveiled the soapbox racers to the base. Some cars had headlights, license plates, and simulated dashboard gauges. The silver grille of Number 31 sported a faux Mercedes emblem. The nose of another car bore bloodshot eyes and sharp teeth. Two teams had crafted sleek vehicles resembling Formula 1 racers. The largest vehicle, fittingly numbered 01, resembled a monster truck. Slathered with bright orange paint, it featured exhaust pipes, a jumbo steering wheel, an air intake on the hood, and a rear-mounted rack for all four team members’ safety helmets. A team of aircraft mechanics designed its entry to resemble a C-130 cargo hauler, complete with green paint, tiny wings, and a pilot’s control wheel. Two little propellers jutted from each wing. Stenciled on the side was U.S. AIR FORCE.

Parked near the mini-C-130 was the most melancholy-looking racer of the bunch, the Flintstone-mobile, its chassis covered with leopard-print fabric. Taped to the seat was a piece of paper that read “Racers needed for this car! Team members are being forward deployed,” a sobering reminder that a war still raged around us. At the last minute an ad-hoc group adopted the Flintstone car to drive in the race.

We hosted a short opening ceremony, played the national anthem, and a volunteer emcee fired the starter pistol. Jockeying for position, roaring ahead at the breakneck speed of 12 mph, the competitors dashed around the camp. The C-130 car was a green blur, its driver anxiously gritting his teeth as he steered the vehicle. At each quarter-mile, the driver and pusher jumped away from the car to be replaced by other team members. During one switch, a car careened sideways, requiring the replacement driver to chase it down the street until he was able to grab the steering wheel and maneuver back on course.

Flying over the occasional speed bump, a few drivers watched helplessly as accessories flew off and wheels disintegrated beneath them. A hasty yank on the hand brake could cause a minor traffic pileup. Over the next two hours, the better-designed racers rose to the top as the less fortunate were rolled to the side. The C-130 zoomed through heat after heat, its cardboard propellers spinning enthusiastically in the wind. The Flintstone car, wheels askew and leopard skin in shreds, begged to be put out of its misery. As it crossed the finish line, its left rear wheel popped off and the vehicle skidded to a halt. Unfazed, the driver thrust his arms in the air and cheered in mock victory. In the final heat, a soapbox racer sculpted like a bullet broke the tape at the finish line. We applauded the winning team, but more importantly, there were a lot of happy faces that afternoon. Later, the derby racers found new drivers: the children in the local village.

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