Racer tech wizards drive a Barbie, but rely on a cowboy

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Posted: Tuesday, July 16, 2013 12:00 am

Kevin Fusselman is not happy.

It's past 8 p.m. on a Tuesday, and things don't look good for the Omaha Maker Group. An hour ago, “Barbie,” their souped-up Fisher-Price Power Wheels car, clocked out at almost 20 mph. Now it sits motionless.

The rear battery is leaking. One of the speed controllers is jacked. The drive chain keeps throwing, and the wiring labels have melted.

But the biggest problem is time. Less than four days remain until the group's debut at Maker Faire Kansas City, where hacker teams race mutant Power Wheels around a parking lot track. Even if the Omaha Maker Group (OMG) can diagnose its problems, it'll take long nights to solve them.

The alternative, though, is quitting, and Fusselman, the team's most vocal member and the Barbie car's chief architect, isn't ready to give up.

It was Fusselman who started OMG in 2011, looking for anyone interested in founding a “makerspace” — a communal workshop of tools and materials. Meetings followed, then an honest-to-goodness space opened up in an old factory basement. Earlier this year, OMG moved into a larger strip mall space near 84th and L Streets. The first order of business: Should they enter a car at Maker Faire?

It was decided they should.

They bought the perfect car off Craigslist: an adorable and broken Barbie jeep.

They came up with the perfectly geeky team name: OMGFTW (Omaha Maker Group for the Win).

Over three months, they rebuilt the jeep.

Their strategy carried risks: Use lighter (and more complicated) parts, thereby retaining the car's original appearance. On race day, roll out this cute little pink jeep and blow away the competition with deceptive speed and precise handling.

OMGFTW.

Except now the Barbie car has neither speed nor handling. A half a dozen guys huddle around as Fusselman stares into the jeep's innards and describes their predicament with increasingly creative obscenities.

It's not that they lack brainpower. All are experts, formally educated and self-taught, in electronics, mechanics, geometry and physics, guys who build 3-D printers and tweak laser cutters and perfect the launch capacity of potato guns.

But now the clock is ticking.

“Anyone who (cares) about the Barbie car, please come in here!” Fusselman shouts, storming into the main workroom where several OMG members tool around on their own projects and, like a scene from “Lord of the Rings,” 14 people form a semicircle to determine the team's fate.

To rebuild Barbie, OMG followed the rules set forth by the Power Racing Series, the governing body of Power Wheels racing.

The budget limit is $500. Several members chipped in. Some contributed to the actual makeover.

Three emerged as leaders: Fusselman, 30, a tinkerer who landed his first paid computer gig at age 7; Eric Kaplan, 42, the group's friendly board president, with a mechanical engineering degree from Georgia Tech; and Ben Hutcheson, 26, an aerospace engineer major at Iowa State who looks like actor Neil Patrick Harris.

The three stand before the group, and Fusselman outlines the Barbie car's issues — the motor, the battery, the chain-throwing problem they can't address.

“We're not really out anything right now,” he says. “But without the generosity of a battery place and a lot of hard work, we probably don't have a to car race on Saturday.”

Someone asks for a best-case scenario.

“We'll come in dead last,” Hutcheson says, “if we don't catch on fire.”

“It sounds hopeless,” someone says.

Others disagree, arguing that the experience will be good for next year.

Two people vote to quit. Three vote to keep working.

“Alright,” Fusselman says. “Let's do it.”

Back outside, he swaps the front battery with the back battery and reroutes wiring, then throws on his helmet and jumps behind the wheel.

Hope springs.

Then, the car just breaks.

It is an uneventful death, without fire or smoke. As they lift Barbie onto the dock, Fusselman and Hutcheson discuss a timetable for next year and new parts. Different motors, different batteries. They resign themselves to attend Maker Faire, yet again, as spectators.

Except Fusselman's mind keeps spinning. He takes out his phone and fires off a quick dispatch.

“Please email me asap,” he writes.

A day passes before a reply comes, a rejoinder from the one man who can put them back in Saturday's race.

The mysterious gunslinger of the Omaha maker community.

One of the biggest celebrities in the four-year history of the Power Racing Series.

The Lone Hacker.

***

There are two important things to understand about the Power Racing Series.

Omaha Maker Group

8410 K St. #5

omahamakergroup.org

Members pay $35 per month ($15 for students). Some use the tools on hand for personal projects, while others enjoy the camaraderie of group work and contests.

Power Racing Series

Information: powerracingseries.org

Makers in the Making

The Omaha Children's Museum recently opened its new “Maker-Space” for children, devoted to encouraging exploration, creativity and discovery.

Information: ocm.org

The first is its relationship to Maker Faire, a series of festivals sponsored by Make magazine. Since the first Maker Faire in San Francisco in 2006, signature events have been added in New York, Detroit and Kansas City. Thousands turn out for two days of entertainers, speakers, exhibitors and modified Power Wheels.

The second is that the series is not merely a sport, but also entertainment, and because of this it must carry a storyline. Nothing carries a storyline like an unexpected hero, and nothing is more unexpectedly heroic than an underdog. And in a sport comprised largely of engineering-minded teams of semi-geniuses, there is no underdog quite like The Lone Hacker.

Three years ago, an Omaha accountant named Kyle Deloske looked for a weekend getaway for his family. He discovered a website for Maker Faire Kansas City and Power Wheels racing and thought, that looks interesting.

With help from his dad, he frankensteined together a car. Come race day, Deloske was outmatched — embarrassingly so. But he wore an enormous blue foam cowboy hat and a white-fringed Western shirt and called himself The Lone Hacker. The crowd ate it up.

The next year he returned with a better car, and then again last year, and while he's never come close to winning, Deloske takes advantage of the sport's rules that award “moxie” points for audience popularity. As the 32-year-old Deloske says, “Just be loud and obnoxious and you'll get something for it.”

When he received Fusselman's message offering OMG's services as pit crew for this year's race, Deloske readily accepted, if for no other reason than it would make his wife, Pam, Mrs. Lone Hacker, happy. All cars must be driven by at least two drivers.

“It worked out well for me,” she says, “because I would have had to drive.”

***

When Fusselman, Hutcheson and Kaplan arrive at Kansas City's Union Station on Saturday, it becomes clear just how disastrously the Barbie car would have performed.

The straightaways are too short, the turns too sharp.

“We would have embarrassed ourselves,” Hutcheson says.

“I built a car that was entirely too fast, and I apologize,” Fusselman says a little later.

All morning, the OMG guys collect intelligence for next year. They sketch and measure the track. They agree to color-coding tools to maintain “pit integrity.” When a Des Moines driver crashes hard during a test spin, they add knee and elbow pads to their list.

Along pit row, they scout the variety of machines. Some resemble Power Wheels, beaten and beefed up. Others do not. When they find The Lone Hacker, he is seated on what looks like a riding lawnmower.

They ask about race strategy, and Deloske keeps it simple. His motors are too small and his batteries have been sitting in the garage all year. Hopefully they can keep the thing moving and rack up moxie.

“Really, I could give a damn,” he says. “I just like to come down and have a good time.”

This is partly true.

***

By race time, a couple hundred spectators fill a grandstand.

The day begins with a freestyle competition. Drivers have two minutes to do anything to win the crowd's favor.

The Lone Hacker is up first, his cowboy hat flapping. After spinning out a couple times, he builds to his grand finale: jumping a small ramp over (actually, onto) a rectangle of bubble wrap and cardboard he made to look like a shark-infested waters. He spins out again and salutes the crowd to big cheers.

When the true race begins, The Lone Hacker vaults briefly into second place. Second quickly becomes third, then last as his speed plummets.

By the end of heat one, sweat pours off Deloske's face. He sets down his hat, cracks open a beer and diagnoses the car between drags from a cigarette. The batteries are killing them. Potentially significant wheel issues loom.

For the second heat, Fusselman takes the wheel, wearing a motocross helmet and a vest with “Turbo Tonto” stitched across the back, compliments of The Lone Hacker.

When he jumps out to an early lead, the pit — Hutcheson, Kaplan, The Lone Hacker and wife — erupts into cheers.

Just as quickly, he falls to the rear.

Then, as Fusselman takes a turn, his front right tire comes off and, in a moment that seems to last an eternity, passes him in the race. The car, with Fusselman in the driver seat, collides into a tire stack and clips the guy responsible for waving the yellow caution flag.

“You pushed it too hard!” Deloske jokes as Fusselman returns to the pit, and everyone laughs.

Good news arrives via a small man with a ponytail.

“Guess what?” he says to Deloske. “As usual, you came in first in moxie.”

At the back of the pit, Mrs. Lone Hacker smiles.

“That's really where he shines,” she says.

***

That night, Fusselman, Hutcheson and Kaplan attend an open house at Hammerspace, the sprawling home to the local Kansas City racing team, and stand in awe. It has its own parts store, an organized hodgepodge of hardware and discarded items, including rotary phones.

The main hallway is lined with framed geek-celebrating quotes from Albert Einstein, Kurt Vonnegut and actor Simon Pegg (“Shaun of the Dead”). Among them hangs a cartoon parable called “This Is Not a Box.” It describes all the things a cardboard box can be — spaceship, castle, volcano, throne — to a kid with imagination.

Kaplan, OMG's board president, takes in the scene. All around, makers share advice, debate mechanical decisions, question electronic choices and banter about the harvestable qualities of dead forklifts.

In the outside world, Kaplan is almost always the smartest person in a room, technically speaking. But not here, a fact he finds a little intimidating but mostly inspiring.

“It does amaze me how intelligent people are,” he says.

A few years ago, Kaplan moved his family from Atlanta to Omaha for a new job. He knew no one. Familiar with an Atlanta maker-space, he searched for one in Omaha.

At Hammerspace, he sees what OMG could become, and in tonight's gathering he sees what being a maker is all about.

The real point is to share ingenuity. To crowdsource ideas and to repurpose objects. It's about picking up what someone else might see as junk and using it to solve a problem.

Once you enter this mental space, everything changes. A forklift is not a forklift. A box is not a box.

Life is what you make of it.

***

“Basically we're playing a waiting game,” announces the emcee at Sunday's 75-minute “endurance” race. “Things are going to start falling apart.”

Fifteen minutes in, the pit row becomes a scene of revolving triage. Power Wheels crash, collide, cough and whimper. Motors burn up, batteries drain.

One hour in, The Lone Hacker car perishes.

Felled by faulty batteries and a bum wheel, the team watches the remainder of the race.

What none of them know just yet is they will finish tied for second place, despite not completing a race, because in this deliberately deranged sport, moxie goes a long way and winning is only half the battle.

A few days later, Fusselman darts around the Omaha makerspace. One moment he's helping a member install a donated welding machine, the next he's cleaning out the bathroom.

Kaplan discusses 3-D printing technology with a college student. Soon Hutcheson arrives with McDonald's, and then Deloske, The Lone Hacker, visits to see what's happening with the space, and Fusselman is pleased. He talks about their planned modifications to Barbie, informed by race data.

The group lets Deloske in on their latest news: They've acquired a second car to run alongside Barbie next year, a Fisher Price Corvette they're calling “Ken.”

Fusselman likes their chances. There's a year to plan, new strategies in mind and a growing maker space.

At the strip mall off 84th Street, spirits are high once again. Hope springs. OMG, for the win.

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