TOY STORY

Adults are racing souped-up Power Wheels toys, and it might become the next great American sport

This post has been corrected.

On an unseasonably warm and sunny September day, the race crews were in the paddock, frantically making last minute adjustments to their cars as time trials were taking place. There was yelling, sweating, welding, and drilling, as the crews worked under canopies to get their cars ready for the big race. It was the season finale, and the trophy was on the line. This wasn’t a NASCAR or Formula 1 race, however—this was last race of the year of the Power Racing Series, where engineers rebuild children’s electric car toys to race at adult speeds.

The race took place as part of the festivities at the fifth annual Maker Faire in Queens, New York on Sept. 26. The event, which bills itself as “part science fair, part county fair,” is a sprawling, chaotic mess of children playing with robots and LEGOs, drone demonstrations, arts and crafts activities, more robots, and startups looking for an audience. Nestled in Zone 6—the fair is so big that it’s labeled like an industrial park—between a life-size version of the board game Mouse Trap, and a group of Midwesterners racing power tools, the Power Racing Series had set up its miniaturized race track.

The league’s co-founder, Jim Burke, told Quartz that the idea to rebuild and race kids’ toys came when a group of friends found a discarded Power Wheels vehicle in a dumpster in their hometown of Chicago. Burke and his friends wanted to see how fast they could make the thing go: “As a bunch of calm and respectable adults, we thought it’d be a great if we shoved a bunch of lead-acid batteries in it and ride it up and down the street,” Burke said. Once they’d put in a bigger motor and a frame that could support an adult, they thought, as any red-blooded American might, that these things might be fun to race.

The home made DeLorean.
The home made DeLorean. (Quartz/Mike Murphy)

The first official race was at the first Maker Faire in Detroit in 2010, and Burke said the traveling circuit has appeared at every race since then. Burke said they have seven races a year across the US, and over the six years, they’ve had hundreds of teams participate. Today, the racers were only able to hit around 15 mph (24 kilometers per hour) due to the windy nature of the small course—which was a converted parking lot for Corona Park, the site of the 1964 World’s Fair—but on larger courses, these tiny cars are able to hit about 25 mph , Burke said, and if the cars switch out their gearings, they can hit highway speeds. Super Mario would be impressed.

The teams line up for Saturday's sprint race.
The teams line up for the Sept. 26 sprint race. (Quartz/Mike Murphy)

Teams can only spend up to $500 on modifications to their cars, which Burke said was intended to keep the league accessible to anyone. “Basically you start with a children’s Power Wheel, hack it to pieces, and build it up to a crazy racing machine,” Burke said. A wide range of people participated in the event, including MIT engineers who rebuilt the cars in their spare time, mechanics, and kids of all ages, working with their parents on the weekends.

Some cars looked just like old Power Wheels toys, and others were heavily modified. One team built a tiny replica of the DeLorean from the “Back to the Future” series, one built Mad Max’s car, and another turned a Power Wheels vehicle into a train with three cars connected that could barely make it around the course. “It gets the crowd really into it,” Burke said.

A few hundred people watched a team called “Cartastrophe” win the sprint race on the event’s first day. The following day (Sept. 27), the league held its final race of the season: a 45-lap endurance race—think a very tiny version of the Le Mans 24-hour race—which was also won by Cartastrophe. They got to take home the Tesla Cup—a handmade trophy that each year’s winner gets to add something to. (Last year, the winners added a cinder block.)

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This year’s winning car, with the cinder-blocked Tesla Cup. (Grayslake Garage - Cartastrophe)

Burke said he’s looking for additional sponsors to help grow the company and add more races—Shell sponsored this race track. His ultimate goal, he said, is to connect the fun of racing a passion for science by developing a high school league that spreads across the US.

Like any good sport involving kids, Burke said it’s really about having fun, rather than winning. “All the other competitions [kids] do are immensely stressful and basically send a message that engineering is suffering—that’s not what we want to foster here,” he said. It’s about making something that kids and adults enjoy, that they’re proud of. “For us, it’s not just how you finish: It’s how you finish, in regards to how cool you are,” he added.

Correction (Oct. 1, 4 p.m.): An earlier version of this post said that the league’s first race took place in San Fransisco, when in fact it took place in Detroit. The first Maker Faire was, however, in San Fransisco Bay Area.

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