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You Can Have a Blast with 135 Piccolo Petes Duct-Taped to a Skateboard

a group of people standing around a fountain with a flag
You Duct-Taped 135 Piccolo Petes to a Skateboard?Mark Vaughn

The perfect melding of thrust, directional stability, and patriotism melded together at the annual 4th of July Piccolo Pete races on a suburban street in SoCal on Friday, and we got to watch—and even participate.

Held every year for the last 25 years, the “Piccolo Pete Race” is a celebration of neighborliness, community, and controlled explosions in bucolic suburban Orange County, California.

It all happened amidst perfectly coiffed lawns, wide streets, well-behaved dogs, and houses that symbolize the post-war prosperity that saw Southern California rise out of orange groves to define suburban peacefulness in the 1950s. On this normally quiet street, rockets glared red, duct-taped to all manner of wheeled contraptions.

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“It’s all for the kids,” said organizer Steve Doughty. “And they just have a blast.”

a group of people outside
Move over Red Rover, let Jimi take over...Mark Vaughn

There were maybe 150 people along this perfect street in this perfect neighborhood, maybe half of them kids, some of them dads nursing red plastic cups and cigars, everyone dressed in some combination of red, white, and/or blue.

The races began with a benediction from the monsignor of the local Catholic church. Then one of the kids who grew up on the street played a fantastic rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s Star-Spangled Banner on an electric guitar with an amp the size of a washing machine. Then the racing action got under way.

There were six award classes: cars with just one Piccolo Pete, cars with two Piccolo Petes, Open, Modified, Best Wipeout, and Most Creative.

Designs ranged from simple, one-Peters that were taped to tiny toy cars all the way up to (brace yerself): “a carbon-fiber skate with stainless steel axles diamond-lapped to fit tiny ball bearings in custom milled, Delrin pillow blocks and wippet-thin nylon wheels with foam rubber tires sourced from an RC aircraft supplier all powered by 17 Piccolo Petes stuffed into a hollowed-out Natty Lite aluminum beer can the paint of which had been machined off for lightness.”

The latter was built by my friend and colleague, the Art Center-trained automotive and advertising photographer John Thawley, who had been telling me for years that I had to come to this event. He was right, of course.

If Thawley’s entry represented the pinnacle of P-Pete technology, my entry was on the other end of the spectrum. Rather than study the subject for years, I had instead stopped at a Salvation Army Thrift Store on the way to the OC. In the toy section of the store, they had five kiddie toys with wheels and one skateboard.

a man holding a small car
Thawley’s creation proved the perfect combination of light weight, thrust, and steering.Mark Vaughn

The skateboard was way too heavy to be moved by the Piccolo Petes’ thrust (turns out it is rocket science). Of the other four, I tested their rolling resistance and alignment on the cement floor of the store. The clear winner was a foot-long plastic truck from the movie Cars, the character known as Mack.

From there I went across the street to the Knights of Columbus’ fireworks stand and bought five boxes of Piccolo Petes. From home I brought clear plastic packing tape.

As soon as I got to the signup table at the races, Steve Doughty’s daughter, who had been doing this her “whole life,” and seeing my obvious inexperience at this sort of thing, began ripping the plastic bases off all my Piccolo Petes as a sort of race prep.

Another kid grabbed my plastic Mack truck and began tearing the cab off the truck “for better aerodynamics.” The Petes were taped together in rows of five, then stacked atop one another in a powerful Piccolo Pete pile. This assembled stack I taped to the back of the launch vehicle, the now-stripped-down Mack.

I awaited my chance at glory.

The competition began with the one-Peters, some of which were taped to Hot Wheels. These only went about a foot or two. The two-Peters got a little further, but lacked directional stability.

a hand holding a camera
My ridiculous heap.Mark Vaughn

Then the heavy artillery came out: massive, ungainly contraptions, some with over 100 Petes taped on top. Steve lit the one- and two-Peters with a Benzomatic Basic Torch Kit from Home Depot.

But the multi-fuse entries required all fuses to be lit simultaneously, so he switched to a Flame King Weed-Burning Multi-Purpose Propane Torch hooked up to one of those large propane canisters you see bolted to the outside of house trailers. It’s listed at Lowes Hardware as “320,000 BTU Heat Output.”

God Bless America.

“FFFFFWWWWWWoooooooooooWHEEEEEEEEEEEE,” the cars launched. Some went straight, some looped around and crashed into the 2x4 barricades set up in the street, a few, the glorious few, went straight.

Thawley’s entry, basically a carbon-fiber roller skate with who-knows-how-many Petes crammed into a slender aluminum beer bottle bolted on top, set off like a Falcon 9 Heavy Lift rocket, directly down the middle of the street. Smoke trailing in its mighty wake, the crowd cheering wildly.

My entry started well, then dove left, smacking the 2x4s, and emptying its thrust vectors uselessly into the warm California sun.

“You’ll do better next year,” said one of the cigar-chomping dads.

Two kids, with a trimaran three-fuse setup that someone said was “from JPL,” likewise smacked the barricades at about the same place I did. Half of life is just luck.

a group of people at a water fountain
It was like Bonneville with rockets.Mark Vaughn

Projectile after projectile fired up and rocketed down the street, some better than others. All got a cheer. The kid who won the Open category had 135 Piccolo Petes taped onto some sort of wheeled plastic tray.

“I went big and I won,” said young William Johnson, visiting from South Carolina.

Thawley won Modified with his F1-level skate car, which disappeared over the horizon.

“That’s why we created the modified category, because of John,” Doughty said.

a man and a boy holding cups
Young William Johnson, visiting from South Carolina, shows his award to Thawley. Johnson used 135 Piccolo Petes.Mark Vaughn

For my part, I had ideas for next year. Since directional stability seemed to be the biggest hurdle to success in Piccolo Pete racing, why not incorporate a model-airplane-style servo to steer the thing?

“You could, but that’s just extra weight and you’ve only got Piccolo Petes,” said Doughty.

Yeah but, if you got one from a model airplane…

See? This same thing happens in all racing. But I’m planning to visit a model airplane store soon and… aw, who knows.