Nick Hunter is a veteran of Red Bull Soapbox Race. Although he tasted sweet success in the 2019 race, he's also tasted the tarmac, crashing out in 2017.
Here's his considered guide to navigating the steep slopes, sharp bends, and hairy jumps, and making it across the line with your car (and perhaps even your dignity) intact.
Jack, our winning driver in 2019, tells us to this day that he didn’t touch the brakes once
"I’d never been to a soapbox event prior to racing at Alexandra Palace," says Nick. "I'd seen it on TV and it looked like great fun, so towards the end of 2016 I suggested to some colleagues that we sign up and we didn't look back."
While their debut race didn't go to plan, crashing out in stunning fashion, Nick's team Gas Gas Gas came back for more in 2019, wowing the masses with a strong start line performance (themed around a zombie apocalypse, naturally), unique build and of course a strong drive to boot.
Here are Nick's vital tips:
1. Drive without fear
"You want someone with confidence behind the wheel who enjoys the thrill of driving at speed. If you're too cautious then it’s probably not going to be a spectacular run. When our team asked who’d want to drive in 2019, nobody put their hands up and so we all voted for Jack, our youngest team member. He was keen to take on the challenge and a great pick, fearless except for a few nerves in the week leading up to it. After his Red Bull Soapbox run he was on a real high."
2. It’s much steeper than you think
"Watching it on TV it can feel much tamer than it actually is in person. The ramps at Alexandra Palace look twice as big in real life, particularly when you’re in the driving seat. After your push start you’ve got little control, so in those early moments it’s about gaining control of the wheel and being one with the soapbox. Happily, the day before the event you can join the other teams for a course walk and do your homework, planning the drive in your head and thinking how your car will react at each obstacle."
3. Check the nuts and bolts
"Before you race, move the wheel back and forth to check the joints on the steering system are solid and that there’s not too much wobble in your setup. If it’s nice and firm that'll be reflected in your driving, and when you do need to steer at speed the wheels won’t be sloppy and go into a 100 percent lock, as that’d be really bad."
4. Commit to the ramps
"When you’re going over ramps and obstacles you really have to commit. You see some people hesitate, they try to steer away from the jump and only go over half of it and it goes really badly. Some will even brake too much before they go over a jump and simply slow to a halt and lose all momentum. You’ve got to have a gung-ho attitude and just go for it. Jack, our winning driver in 2019, tells us to this day that he didn’t touch the brakes once."
5. Practice makes perfect
"You have to build your confidence up behind the wheel. We would pull our soapbox racer around a car park attached to a vehicle by rope, just to check the steering and brakes were okay; then we’d gradually move onto steeper and steeper hills. Not as steep as Alexandra Palace, but not far off. You can’t replicate a crowd but I can say that in 2019 Jack seemed to get energy from it, pumping his arms while racing downhill. There are a couple of moments when you’re on a straight and have a few seconds to engage with the crowd before a jump."
In those early moments it’s about gaining control of the wheel and being one with the soapbox.
6. The drive will depend on the car
"Every car needs a different sort of driver. We were only fifth fastest on the day in 2019, we didn't have a car built for the fastest run because we also wanted stability. When you see a speed wobble, for instance, you may need to apply a bit of the brakes to bring it back under control. Drivers in bulkier cars may not need to. There are a couple of narrow spots on the course where you have chicanes and must squeeze past hay bales, and for those in faster cars that's probably where they'll come unstuck."
7. Don't panic
"Sometimes even the best drivers will fail. Even if you know your run hasn't gone smoothly, if you've hit a few hay bales and had a few push-starts, just go with it, keeping your wheel stable and staying in a good position for the landing. If you crash, you crash — the course is designed to catch you out. When I drove in 2017, they had a triple ramp, where you’d go over the first one and then drop down a couple more times, and that’s the one that threw our suspension off. It wasn’t stable enough for the weight we had in the car. We went one way, the kart went the other way. It was painful for me as my teammate landed on top of me. At least he had a nice soft landing!"