The legendary SFMoMA Soapbox Derby returned to McLaren Park after a 40+ year hiatus, and we’re proud to say that Red Rita the Feminist Excavator made her legendary debut appearance!
Red Rita’s fabrication required all hands on deck! For months, instructors Augusta Sitney and Emily Pilloton-Lam worked on removing the engine, rebuilding the brakes and steering mechanisms, and welding steel brackets for the repurposed go-kart, and our Construction + Community class spent weeks building a wooden frame for the go-kart, including a moving claw. Students and staff alike were thrilled to compete in the race. “When an institution like SFMoMA comes to us and tells us that…we belong in the room, or on the track, that’s huge,” Emily said.
On race day, our students and instructors arrived hours before the race began to set up amongst the other derby cars, including an ice-cream parlor truck, a shrimp car, a giant cardigan, and a duck pond. As the crowd trickled in, adults and children alike approached the Girls Garage crew to get a closer look at Red Rita and in some cases, to pull the lever for her claw! Audience members marveled on our feminist take on big machinery and its jazzy accessories, including a Rosie the Riveter bobble head, fog machine, and stuffed uterus.
Around noon, we rolled Red Rita (piloted by ever-ebullient Augusta) to the start line and prepared our positions. With a wave of the green flag, we were off, with a mob of our student-builders running alongside to cheer Red Rita and Augusta on. Down the course Red Rita careened, lights flashing, claw swinging, all to the tune of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5”! When Augusta made the last turn down the swooping race track, she crossed the finish line to roaring applause!
At the end of the day, the awards were announced and to our great surprise and delight, Red Rita the Feminist Excavator cinched the “Most Joyful” award! The trophy was created by students at Mission High School and currently lives in the Girls Garage workspace, where it serves as a daily source of joy.
In the weeks following the big race, we’ve reflected on the importance of the derby experience, especially after years of pandemic isolation. It’s no coincidence that the SFMoMA Soapbox Derby was revived during the COVID-19 pandemic, a period where museums across the country struggled to stay afloat and, more importantly, relevant to the communities they served. What use is a Jeff Koons sculpture when you’re on the brink of unemployment, or protesting police brutality in the streets? Bringing back the Soapbox Derby offered an opportunity to build trust and connection within the Bay Area arts community, especially after years bereft of in-person public events. As the Director of Public Engagement at SFMoMA Tomoko Kanamitsu noted, “If we can’t be inside the space where we expect art to be, we need to bring the art to where we can be.” While the derby cars ranged from mechanical feats to whimsical wonders, the real showstopper was the chance to stand among thousands of strangers, hooting and hollering and participating together in a joyful event.
Red Rita the Feminist Excavator is currently living her best life at the KQED headquarters in San Francisco. In the weeks following the derby, she was headlining in the SFMoMA lobby.