A couple of “Straw Hat Pirates” race in a soapbox car fashioned after Monkey D. Luffy’s pirate ship from “One Piece,” the Going Merry, during local nonprofit Best STEP Forward’s annual soapbox car races on Saturday morning, Oct. 28 at Cattle Call Park in Brawley. | SARINA E. GUERRA PHOTO
BRAWLEY — From atop the hill at Cattle Call Park, music and laughter could be heard echoing out of the basin preceded only by the smell of burgers and hot dogs on the grill.
Hundreds of residents and a few furry friends in Halloween costumes lined the dirt side of the hill while carefully placed hay bales lined the other as parent volunteers finalized the raceway for local nonprofit Best STEP Forward’s annual soapbox car race held on sunny Saturday morning, Oct. 28.
As one of the largest local nonprofits catering to youths on the autism spectrum, Best STEP Forward is known for going big. Resource tables and booths from the Sheriff’s Department to the Special Needs Research Foundation of San Diego spanned the length of the hill, offering brightly colored freebies, candy and information to passersby, while participants gathered for a pre-race performance to show off a few choreographed line dances — a highlight of the extracurricular program designed to foster “expression” and “perseverance” through fun activities like sports and theater.
Children — and adults — dressed as characters from video games, television, and movies made for a mashup of “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “The Addams Family” and Star Wars universes set to pop anthems such as “Best Day of My Life” by American Authors, Dua Lipa’s “Dance the Night,” and more.
Now that the wiggles were all out, emcee and head of Best STEP Forward, Jackie Riddell, ordered the racers and pit crews to their places. Each racer hit their mark one by one as intricately painted soapbox cars with quirky themes were set atop the hill.
Racing teams included Andree, 8, and Santiago Molina, 12, of “Molina Machine”; Sergio Molina, 14, of “Keko Jeep”; Alex Murrillo, 10, of “Nightmare Before Christmas”; Ivanna Franco, 10, of “Material Girl”; Killian Riddell, 15, of “Monster Mash”; Christian,12, and Isaac Garcia, 10, of “Going Merry”; Daniel, 10, and Darian Jimenez, 6, of “Megalodon”; Thomas Hurtado, 10, of “Jurassic Park Jeep”; Penelope Mercado, 8, of “Snail Guts”; Aiden Gilbert, 18, of “Yoshi Cart”; Zoe Mercado, 9, of “Speed Cat”; Joshua Silver, 21, of “Mortal Kombat Scorpion,” and Jessie Reyes, 12, of “Jessie McQueen.”
“I got a ticket!” said racer Jessie Reyes, 12. He said he was cited by a real “Sheriff” at the start of his run for “not paying registration fees.”
“The Sheriff told us, ‘Whoa, slow down! You’re not racing yet!’” said Jessie, still inside his Lightning McQueen-themed soapbox car. His father, Junior Reyes, laughed at the faux real-life scenario from the passenger seat and said that the best part about the race wasn’t about winning or losing but “just having a moment with your son or daughter.”
“(The kids) had a lot of input on what they wanted, and it was just up to us to make it happen,” said Junior of the process. The pair are seasoned veterans of the soapbox car program and are proud to say that not only was their model based off a real car, but that it was the third version of the masterpiece they had in their minds. Previous versions were a truck, based off of “Toy Story’s” Pizza Planet, and a Krusty Krab-themed car based off of Nickelodeon’s “Spongebob series.”
Being a part of this program requires “extensive” involvement from both parents and children, said Best STEP Forward’s Riddell, likening the level of commitment to FFA programs locals might be more familiar with. She explained that there is a one-time fee of $1,500, which teams are typically responsible for covering via sponsorship. Those fees help cover the cost of raw materials, tools, paint, city fees and providing free food and admission for attendees on race day.
The “BSF daddios,” as Riddell calls them, are “talented” and possess “an amazing set of skills” such as metalwork and carpentry that allow them to customize each car from scratch while also teaching the youths along the way. Riddell emphasized that this is one of those programs that parents and children have to “put their hearts in” in order to truly get the most out of this unconventional introduction to learning complicated trade skills.
Newest addition to the line up — a car called “Going Merry” — was an example of the collective effort necessary to realize each kid’s vision. Manned by Christian Garcia, 13, Isaac Gonzalez, 11, and father, Andrew Gonzalez, the boys clamored to report what their contribution was to the pirate ship-themed car. Isaac said that he was most excited to have learned how to weld, but that the skill is “super hard” because working conditions are hot and sometimes the tools can be tricky to get the hang of. “Everybody kind of implements their skills together,” said Andrew of himself and the handful of fathers tasked with managing construction.
“This year, we have seen a far more supportive community overall,” said Riddell, noting that local government officials were more accommodating than ever. “The city of Brawley didn’t hesitate to approve our request this year, we heard yesses across the board … and we’re grateful for that.”
She also mentioned that there were more research booths and attendees than previous years, calling the crowd “by far the largest group we’ve hosted for” and anticipates that next year will surpass this year’s numbers.
Best STEP Forward is known for their inclusive, “accepting” and “sensory friendly” environment and newcomers typically display interest at the conclusion of the event on race day. Riddell said that after all official racers have completed their runs, the track opens up to youths interested in trying out cars for the first time.
“It gives us an opportunity for the kids to try it, and if they like it, hopefully they’ll be back,” Riddell said.
Angel Chavez, 12, was one of those captivated by what he saw that day, and his mother, Sylvia Chavez, has been encouraging him to ease into competing as well. “We’re going to try to work him in for next year,” she said. “He’s just a little scared. I know Jackie has overcome that with other kids and mastered it, so we’re going to give it a try.”
Taking home trophies for the day were Penelope Mercado, 8, of “Snail Guts” in first place, Zoe Mercado, 9, of “Speed Cat” in second place, and Jessie Reyes, 12, of “Jessie McQueen” in third place.