Electric Disco Hovertank Racing wants YOU!

One of the finest traditions of roller derby is goofy halftime activities. Goofy halftime activities? This stuff is what I was born to do. Here’s what I’m trying to get organized, and I want your participation!

Start with leaf-blower hovercrafts, like the one pictured here. It’s made of some plywood, some 6-mil plastic, lots of duct tape, and a hardware-store leaf blower:

The audio has been disabled on that video. If you’d like to see a version with a soundtrack, I’ve created a YouTube Doubler version here!

Make a couple of those hovercrafts (here’s some sample plans), then add painted cardboard superstructures, just like Box Wars does for their halftime battles at Toronto Roller Derby:

Okay, so far we have hovercars. Really cool-looking ones if we paint them bright colors, maybe even fluorescent colors with the black-lights at the rink. I’ve ordered a case of Mr. McGroovy’s Cardboard Box Rivets to help with the body construction. I’m imagining small perforated flanges screwed to the cardboard that will allow the superstructure to be securely attached. Hey, it works great in my head!

Next ingredient: Laser-tag. Roller rinks do this as a birthday-party activity. Caln Skating Center has a number of heavy, solid Tippman 98 paintball guns that have been converted to laser guns with bolt-on electronics packages. The rink also has a number of inflatable five-foot bollards that look like giant Weebles. They’ve lent me two guns to experiment with. The electronics are a far cry from the lazer-tag guns when I was a kid; they know WHO shot WHOM, and a gun will disable itself after its health is depleted. If you add CO2 bottles, they even have recoil(!)

Okay, enough talking. Hovercrafts, plus cardboard superstructures, plus fixed-mount laser guns, plus Brandywine Roller Girls halftime equals HOVERTANK RACING. Since we’re inside, we’ll use electric leaf blowers, so that makes it ELECTRIC hovertank racing. With the loud music, black lights, and fog machine, it’s electric DISCO hovertank racing!

The rules? Hell, I don’t even know yet:

  • Maybe the hovertanks will have their power cut for five seconds when a hit is scored.
  • Maybe if the tank has some momentum when being hit, the pilot will come tumbling out through the cardboard wall of the tank. That’s good show-biz right there.
  • Maybe we’ll vote on the best-looking tank.
  • Maybe the tanks will race around the track, or maybe they’ll race from end to end of the rink, capture the flag style, THROUGH the audience.
  • Maybe we’ll fix the laser-tag guns in a locked position on the tanks, so the entire tank must be aimed, like wooden ships fighting naval engagements!

The guns are configurable with infinite or limited ammunition, infinite or limited health, so we have lots of flexibility. We can figure out what’s the most fun to do, and what’s the most fun to watch.

Brandywine Roller Girls SOLSTICE SMACKDOWN poster

Right now, I have simple hovertank plans, and I have two 48″ rounds of 1/2 plywood, and plenty of 6-mil plastic. There’s a leaf blower at the rink. I’ll be there for scrimmage tonight, June 15th, from 7-9 PM to watch BRG scrimmage. We may do some hovertank racing at this Saturday night’s bout, depending on if enough makers come out and say “YES! I will be a part of this nebulous box-of-ingredients project!”


If that’s you — if you’d like to be one of the charter members of Chester County’s very first ELECTRIC DISCO HOVERTANK RACING LEAGUE, leave a comment below! I’m thinking we need hovertank designers, hovertank captains, and hovertank pilots (people to shove these floating hockey-pucks around.) You don’t have to do anything this week — just leave a comment below, and I’ll add you to a group!

Electric Disco Hovertank Racing wants YOU!

More about the Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage

In my last blog post, I hyperventilated about how my wooden nickels caused me to stumble on the story of the PR stunt to end all PR stunts — a fifty-wagon reenactment of the westward migration, with a wagon from every state converging on Valley Forge National Park in 1976.

Things have only gotten more amazing since then.


At a luau this weekend, inimitable salonnière ModBetty of Retro Roadmap gave me this wooden nickel, exclaiming that she had found it at a Phoenixville Historical Society flea market and thought of me. I loved the art, and I loved the instructions to remit five to earn a mysterious, quote-armored “Buffalo” Bill gift.

It wasn’t until we googled up the Longhorn Ranch Glen Mills that we realized that we were holding the wooden-nickel equivalent of the Pick of Destiny. The Longhorn Ranch was a beloved western-themed restaurant where cowgirls would shoot cap guns while singing “happy birthday” to you: “Happy birthday *bang bang*!” Eric Lewis had dinner there in 1977, the night before he shipped out for a career in the submarine service. And then the restaurant was torn down to make way for… are you ready for this? For PULSATIONS. I wish I knew how to permalink to Facebook comments, because so many of the memories that folks were commenting about were so great: “I ate at the Longhorn, and then later came back to see Human League and The Fixx at that same spot!” BEHOLD THE DEEP MAGIC OF THE WOODEN NICKEL.

Bicentennial Wagon Train BookOkay, back to the other thread. Since my last post, I’ve searched for the Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage on the Internet, and found many interesting scattered pieces. But I had lots of questions about what seems to be a huge, audacious PR stunt. Who designed the wagons? Were they to “real” specifications? For God’s sake, who paid for all fifty to get built? Who flew back and forth across the country in smoke-filled 1970s jet planes, organizing this huge thing?

I found, and ordered, a hardcover book on the subject, and it arrived yesterday. The frontispiece of the book declares in stamped gold foil that it is “Number 2,184 in a limited edition first printing of 2,500 hallmarked and registered copies. A gift of the MAYFLOWER CORPORATION.” It is signed (with a stamp) by John B. Smith, president.

Bicentennial Wagon Train Book
And WOW, is this book a treasure trove of information. Just to start out with, the PR company that organized the campaign, began in true focus-group style — consulting Amish wagon makers, then wheelwrights and authors. They consulted with the Smithsonian, created a design, then awarded the contract to build fifty(!) wagons to an Arkansas firm with subcontractors all over the country. In a surprise local development, it turns out that the rubber-rimmed hickory wheels were made by the firm of Hoopes and Darlington right here in West Chester, PA — a company that had been in business since the 1800s.

The book is organized into five sections, one for each of the wagon train routes that converged on Valley Forge. It’s packed with pictures – Lydia is enjoying leafing through and looking for pictures of brown horses with white blazes.

Bicentennial Wagon Train Book

For every question this book answers, two more present themselves to my mind. In the course of Googling, I saw that Thelma Gray, literal-and-figurative pioneer of the Philadelphia advertising community, had organized a country-wide tour called “America On the Move” with Ed McMahon, and backed by the Teamsters. It ended somewhat shakily; was this campaign, with major backing from the Mayflower corporation, a savvy way of rebooting a troubled initiative? (If so, it will only increase my respect for Thelma, who has a valid claim to have invented the product recall.)

Bicentennial Wagon Train Book

Bicentennial Wagon Train BookI’m in love with the story of the Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage. What an amazing trip! I can’t wait to go back to Jimmy’s Barbecue in Malvern and ask Holly a whole bunch of questions. As the daughter of one of the PR firm’s heads, she rode every mile of the trip, spending a whole year in a wagon. Was her dad one of the fellows who worked to make this happen? How did her dad make the transition from Philly ad-man to rootin’, tootin’, rawhide wagon boss?

I mean, this is a mammoth campaign; this isn’t like one of those “Vikings attack Penn’s Landing” events that turns out to be five potbellied dudes in a rowboat (I still remember that particular disappointment from sixth grade, and I am still bitter.) This is a wagon train re-enactment that’s the same scope as the original. I love to imagine neatly-pressed interns, fresh from reading “Ogilvy on Advertising“, trying to find someone to shoe a Morgan horse at 2AM, scowling around a soggy Marlboro, wishing cellphones had been invented already. There’s a movie in here, and it’s a movie I very much want to see!

Once I’m done reading every word in this book, I’ll ask the West Chester Public Library if they’d be willing to keep it in their collection, so y’all can see it too.

Good God almighty, what is the next amazing thing that wooden nickels will reveal? I can’t wait to find out!

More about the Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage

Wooden Nickels and the Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage

Brandywine Roller Girls Wooden NickelsI knew that my wooden nickel project would start yielding unexpected, and awesome, results. Today I got my first giant bonus!

Brandywine Roller Girls sponsor Jimmy’s BBQ heard about the BRG nickels, and offered to redeem each nickel for a pulled pork sandwich. Not 10% off a sandwich. Not a free sandwich with the purchase of a meal for a family of twelve. Nope, if you get your hands on a BRG wooden nickel and bring it to Jimmy’s, they will trade that nickel for a whole delicious pulled-pork sandwich. You hand them the nickel, they hand you an insanely delicious Memphis dry-rub style pulled-pork sandwich. Oh, man, what a deal!

But wait, that’s not even the most amazing part! Jimmy’s general manager Holly told me that the reason she loves wooden nickels is from her days as a young girl riding in the Great American Wagon Train Pilgrimage. This was a huge event in 1976, in which fifty wagons(!) — one from every state — converged in five wagon trains on Valley Forge National Park. The whole thing was conceived and executed by a Philadelphia ad firm. Holly rode in the train as a young girl for a year and a half(!!!), leaving Blaine, Washington in June 1975, and arriving in Valley Forge in July, 1976.

Bicentennial Wagon Train: Bud Pena and the New Mexico WagonGOOD GOD, are you kidding me? This thing sounds like a combination between Woodstock, a gypsy caravan, and an Iron Butt motorcycle rally, with a couple of Appalachian trail through-hikes thrown in and Pa Wilder marching proudly at the head. Can you imagine the logistics involved with putting together a fifty-state wagon train, with wagons converging from every direction? Before cellphones? With a musical performance in every town?

There doesn’t seem to be a central website, or even a Wikipedia article about this huge event, but you can read lots of great tantalizing story fragments in the comments on this page. Or scroll halfway down this prim writeup by the National Parks Service, and look at pictures of the wagons here.

Have a look at these scans of the original brochure, which is a fantastic piece of long-form David Ogilvy-style copywriting. Holly hinted about all sorts of stories to come, too. “Oh yeah, our wagon master was captured by Indians.” She was quite serious.

I’ve got to learn more about this. What an amazing crossover of Madison-avenue culture, local PR gumption, and actual real-world logistics! What a cool experience riding (as Holly did) from Washington state to Valley Forge in a covered wagon at nine years old! Thanks, wooden nickels, for uncovering this story!

UPDATE: after @subewl tweeted that last photo, Sean McGlinch responded with this photo, that his grandfather had taken in front of The Guernsey Cow in Exton:

Bicentennial Wagon Train passes the Guernsey Cow

SECOND UPDATE: I just discovered that there’s a Facebook group with lots and lots of great photos.

THIRD UPDATE: Wow, every name I google in connection with this project is turning up amazing stories. The wagon train was (partially? mostly?) administered by pioneering advertising and PR executive Thelma Gray, inventor of the product recall. Thelma had, several years before, organized an across-the-country tour for the Teamsters with Ed McMahon and the Nixon administration. Good lord, it’s like finding out that P.T. Barnum lived in your own back yard, and was a lady in a tweed suit!

FOURTH UPDATE:Here’s another photo of the wagon train passing the Guernsey Cow that Sean McGlinchey sent me. I love the comment by Chris Thompson on the flickr page: “Look at all these hipsters in this instagram shot”

Bicentennial Wagon Train, 1976

Wooden Nickels and the Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage