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On Brooklyn Streets,
Shopping Carts Roll
In a Renegade Derby
Teams Dodge Potholes, Police
In Race to Manhattan;
Cobra's Bag of Dirty Tricks
By JOE BARRETT
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
February 2, 2006; Page A1
BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Tom Grise and his team had high hopes for their shopping cart. They attached 10-foot metal bars to make it easier to pull and placed a scary plastic skull on the front. They girded it in cardboard, painted to look like a mining cart. The five members of the team decked themselves out in Indiana Jones costumes.
When they crested the hill of Brooklyn's Fort Greene Park last Saturday afternoon, they realized what they were up against: nearly 200 rival teams including a group of 7-foot bananas and a barrel full of naughty monkeys. Vampires escorted a bat with a 12-foot wingspan. An Old West saloon featured cowboys, a busty barkeep and a working keg of beer. A team from the "Mayo Clinic," dressed as doctors, smothered themselves in mayonnaise.
Mr. Grise, a 25-year-old engineering consultant, had arrived at the starting point of the third annual Idiotarod, New York's answer to Alaska's Iditarod race, with shopping carts taking the place of sleds and human beings taking the place of dogs. Instead of more than 1,000 miles of snow-covered back country, the course features about four miles of snarling traffic, crowded sidewalks, nasty potholes, stern police and a chaotic crossing of the Manhattan Bridge in which entrants sabotage one another with body checks. They also throw fruit.
Shopping-cart races are popping up in cities around the country, offering an outlet for on-the-edge creativity and urban anarchy. San Francisco will hold its 12th "Urban Iditarod" on March 4, the starting date for the real Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome. Racers will leave downtown San Francisco and go a little beyond Fisherman's Wharf, about three miles away. Portland, Ore., and Ann Arbor, Mich., have similar events.
Members of the Cobra team push their cart through the streets of Manhattan.
Jeff Stark, a 33-year-old film-production worker and handyman, and Maureen Flaherty, 31, a buyer for a maker of recycled glass and concrete countertops, were looking for something fun to do at the end of a dreary January. The Brooklyn roommates are part of a loosely knit community drawn to the borough for its somewhat cheaper rents and low-budget, participatory art scene. They decided to steal the idea from the San Francisco event and import it to New York, redubbing it the Idiotarod.
"Art is one of the reasons that people will accept for doing things in New York," Mr. Stark says. "You can get away with all kinds of creative high jinks."
They promoted the event on the Web and through Nonsense NYC, an email list Mr. Stark runs highlighting "independent art" and "strange happenings." The first year drew about 150 runners pushing 30 carts. The second year, 600 runners showed up and about 1,000 turned out this year, according to Mr. Stark.
Like their counterparts in San Francisco, the New York organizers had no interest in going through official channels and getting permits to close off streets along the route. Concerned that police were onto the published starting point in an industrial section of the Williamsburg neighborhood, organizers called participants the morning of the race and told them to assemble at the top of Fort Greene Park, a steeply sloping spot with a view of the Manhattan skyline.
Racers didn't even know where they were headed. They were given one checkpoint at a time and were free to chart their own course.
Luke Stiles, 32, a Brooklyn software engineer at MTV, says his team, "Double Down -- Red Squad," acquired their cart from a store parking lot the night before the race. The morning of the event, they stenciled some white T-shirts with the logo from Mr. Stiles's bicycle-racing team. Red bandanas completed their outfits. Short a fifth person, they recruited a friend's girlfriend at the starting line.
Richard Garcia, a 38-year-old carpenter, spent six weekends building a cart with a cobra theme in his Jersey City, N.J., basement. With his girlfriend, Anne Silvernail, a 25-year-old sculptor and member of the Brooklyn Bombshells roller-derby team, Mr. Garcia enclosed the cart in plywood and installed a battery and a propane tank. The finished product had working headlights, a hot-rod paint job and a sculpted 6-foot-high, fire-breathing snake head.
The couple got swept into the race last summer by Oscar Owens, a 31-year-old Brooklyn music producer. He heads a 40-person "team of teams" called Cobra, or Carts of Brooklyn Racing Association. The group had five teams in the race, including Mr. Garcia's and one with "anyone who admitted to having run before," Mr. Owens says. An additional 15 team members with no carts at all were on hand simply to disrupt the other racers. Says Mr. Owens: "Our goal was a clean sweep."
At 2:30, small explosions and a rain of confetti marked the start of the race. Contestants picked up their carts and scrambled down several sets of steps before descending on the city -- taking over sidewalks on both sides of the street and dodging cars to cross.
It took only minutes for a passing patrol car to notice something amiss. Their lights flashing, police cars shadowed the racers for much of the day.
A few blocks short of the first checkpoint, Cobra laid a trap. Team members had set up a folding table with a sign that said "CHECKPOINT." Runners scrambled to hand the bogus officials their paperwork, seeking a stamp to show they'd completed that leg of the race, Mr. Owens says. Many of them didn't get the forms back, he says.
At the real checkpoint, Mr. Garcia says he tried to send flames out of the cobra's mouth, but the bumpy ride had jarred loose some wires.
Leaving the checkpoint, contestants ran a gantlet of hurled bananas, maple syrup, ketchup and other goopy stuff. "We got pelted with everything," Mr. Garcia says. "Eggs, whole fish, pudding, Silly String. I couldn't stand the smell of myself."
The tight quarters on the Manhattan Bridge walkway set up a free-for-all of cart bashing, shoving and other mischief. "It was the closest thing to 'Mad Max' I've ever experienced," says Mr. Grise, the Indiana Jones team leader.
Temple of Zoom: Maggie Grise, Lars Russell, Tom Grise, Jason Lee and Adam Duerson (left to right) at the finish line of Saturday's Idiotarod, with their Indiana Jones-themed shopping cart.
Mr. Stiles's team fell victim to a well-worn Idiotarod trick: Someone cut the ropes they used to pull the cart.
Police were waiting on the Manhattan side of the bridge, urging participants to slow down for a tight turn and handing out citations for drinking in public. The police "couldn't have been nicer about it," said one recipient, who said it carried a $25 fine.
Police later said the race caused only minor problems. "Police officers were called to marshal traffic and pedestrians," said Detective Bernard Gifford. The group really should get a street-closing permit for future races, he said.
Mr. Stiles's Double Down team picked up speed after the bridge. One of his fellow teammates knew Chinatown and the Lower East Side well, and the team reached the second checkpoint in first place.
The race ended in East River Park, just across from Brooklyn, where it all had begun. The first team to cross the finish line, "Scout Troop 666," a bunch of guys in scout uniforms, was disqualified because it hadn't stopped at any of the checkpoints, Mr. Stark says. The team did pick up a prize for best-in-sabotage. The second team to finish, "Hawaii Five-0," was penalized for being rude to the judges at one of the rest stops, he says.
That left Mr. Stiles and the Double Down squad, who crossed the finish line third, to take the first place prize by default, winning $500.
After walking the last leg of the race with all 25 of the Cobra team racers and crossing the finish line in style, Mr. Garcia finally succeeded in letting loose with a 3-foot-long blast of flames for the judges. The Cobra team was rewarded with the $500 best-in-show prize and the honor of organizing the event next year.
Originally posted at 3:21PM, 2 February 2006 PST
moufle edited this topic ages ago.