It’s a cloudy Saturday afternoon in early February 2019, and the parking lot of Trans Am Café at Grand and 15th avenues looks like a car crash of media franchises: costumed WWE superstars and Saved by the Bell characters, GLOW lookalikes and David Bowie alter-egos. A pair of supposed law enforcement officers dressed up like Frank “Ponch” Poncherello and Jon Baker from CHiPs roam the grounds, dispensing dubious tickets known as “idiot violations.”
Then, there are the shopping carts. One features an enormous mock-up of Cersei Lannister’s dragon-killing ballista, another is a miniature version of the War Rig truck from Mad Max: Fury Road. The Saved by the Bell crowd are still prepping their cart, on which they’re constructing a row of makeshift lockers. An unfortunately titled cart bears the name “Team Dick Move”; The quintet of dude-bros responsible for it are decked out in inflatable penis costumes.
A man clad in a Mork & Mindy T-shirt stands on the back of a golf cart and lifts a megaphone. This fellow, who goes by the name Chromatest J. Pantsmaker, offers up some general advice: Stay on sidewalks. Be safe. Have fun. Get weird.
Then, inexplicably, Pantsmaker begins reciting lyrics to a Kenny Rogers song.
“I’m reminded of a great poet who once said, ‘You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when walk away, and ... know when to run,” Pantsmaker says.
A beat passes. In the crowd, it’s all blank stares and mass confusion.
“No, I’m serious,” Pantsmaker says. “Run!”
And they’re off.
Over the next several hours, these packs of roving hooligans will careen along the streets and sidewalks of downtown. They’ll visit checkpoints at nearby bars and parks. They’ll attempt bizarre feats and challenges: Freddie Mercury impressions, the tossing of hot dog fixings to a teammate beneath a 10-foot-high wall, and a multiperson crawl across the grass at University Park in tribute to the horror film The Human Centipede.
Competitors’ carts will be vandalized with spray paint. Water balloons will be tossed. Much alcohol will be consumed.
Hopefully, nobody will be arrested.
It’s all part of a little-known (but chaotically fun) race called the Idiotarod. Put on by the local countercultural group the Arizona Cacophony Society, the event is an urban prank, bar crawl, gonzo game, and art spectacle all rolled into one. Think of it as Cannonball Run meets Jackass.
The Idiotarod returns to downtown Phoenix this Saturday, February 8, but it’s been rolling along in Phoenix since 2007, when Pantsmaker and Chris Lykins, a local otolaryngologist, got to talking over drinks one night at the Grand Avenue tiki bar Bikini Lounge. Both were active in the local Burning Man community, and shared a frustration about the lack of a spirited counterculture in the Valley at the time.
“Phoenix was dead,” Lykins says of the city in the mid-2000s. “Everyone bitched about nothing happening here. I’m like, ‘Let’s just bring stuff here.’”
He told Pantsmaker about all the oddball events he’d been a part of while living in Seattle.
“We’d have miniature golf contests in alleyways, Santarchy [bar crawls], all these crazy parties,” Lykins says. “I told [Pantsmaker] about this thing my friends did in Seattle called the Idiotarod. He was like, ‘Fuck, let’s do it.’”
The race had been held in other cities, starting in San Francisco in 1994, so a general template existed. It’s a shopping cart race with multiple teams competing. Each team picks a theme, rustles up some costumes, and decorates the hell out of their cart accordingly. Beyond that, though, it’s an anything-goes type of situation. The course and challenges are up to whoever is crazy enough to organize such an event.
That first Phoenix Idiotarod was put together in a less than a month, with Pantsmaker and Lykins plotting the course on the back of a Bikini Lounge cocktail napkin and passing out fliers themselves. Seven teams showed up. The challenges were relatively simple; Most involved chugging cheap beers. It was held downtown, and stops included Bikini Lounge as well as bygone bars like Pete’s Newsroom and The Paisley Violin.
“Downtown was the perfect place for it, because there wasn’t much happening,” Pantsmaker says. “It was a lot of dirt lots, vacant buildings, a handful of bars, and no one around. Teams were running down the middle of Grand [Avenue], since there were zero cars.”
Pantsmaker describes it as an “organization-challenged mess.”
“The point was to do something stupid,” he says, “and get a bunch of people who didn’t normally do stupid things to do them. We had no idea if it’d work, or if anyone would show.”
He didn’t necessarily plan to do a second Idiotarod. But word spread. Turnout doubled the second year, and more than tripled to 34 teams in 2009. “There were so many carts that we started capping it at 36 teams,” Pantsmaker says.
As attendance increased, so did the general sense of chaos and mayhem. In 2012, Pantsmaker had to talk his way out of trouble with Phoenix police after blocking off a small portion of First Street north of Roosevelt Row to stage the beginning of the race. He feigned ignorance about the need for permits, emphasizing that the race was a charity event (which it is), and lived to put on Idiotarod another day.
Organizers moved the race’s start to Margaret T. Hance Park the next few years, just to be safe. But it has not exactly been smooth carting since.
The resurgence and gentrification of downtown Phoenix has presented organizers and participants with new problems. Light rail and more cars on the roads means they have to try to stick to the sidewalks. More businesses and high-rises means less space to spread out.
“It’s gotten harder to find empty lots to do challenges,” says a longtime organizer who goes by the name Landshark. “Now, you have to drive around to find a vacant spot without condos.”
Another byproduct of a less-seedy downtown: families. One recent year, Landshark rigged up an inflatable female sex doll that would shoot ping-pong balls out of her lady parts as part of a challenge at Hance Park.
“You blew in her mouth, and the ping-pong ball would shoot out the other end while you aimed it at a cup,” Landshark says. “People loved it.”
The participants loved it, that is. Certain parents at the park felt otherwise. Landshark says he issued several apologies that day to adults whose children accidentally received some turbocharged sex education. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” he says.
Phoenix Idiotarod organizers have also apologized to a few bar owners over the years. Things tend to get messy when racers commit sabotage — removing wheels, chaining up carts, spraying silly string — against other teams. In 2013, a Home Depot-themed team flung a bunch of powdered paint outside Crescent Ballroom. Everything washed off, Pantsmaker says, but the venue hasn’t participated in an Idiotarod since.
Nor was the staff at Seamus McCaffrey’s thrilled in 2009 when members of “Screaming Fetuses,” an abortion clinic on wheels, tossed pantyhose filled with doll parts and red Jell-O at opposing teams. The Irish flag hanging above the pub’s front door took some collateral damage. (Pantsmaker says Idiotarod policy is to always clean everything up so that no extra burden is placed on the establishments they visit. “We use lots of tarps and drop cloths,” he says.)
To their credit, though, no Idiotarod participants or organizers have ever been arrested, despite repeatedly flouting public consumption laws and other city ordinances.
Still, have they ever considered going legit?
“We could get permits, but then it gets to the point where it’s too serious — it’s sanctioned, it’s regulated, it’s normal,” Pantsmaker says. “It has to be weird. If it stopped being weird, we’d stop doing it.”
As for what’s in store at this weekend’s Phoenix Idiotarod 2020, Pantsmaker is keeping things pretty close to the vest. Close to 30 teams have signed up, and six bars and “six-and-a-half challenges” are on the itinerary. Pantsmaker says to expect “cockfighting,” adding that no chickens will be involved. (Read into that what you will.) But other than that, Pantsmaker isn’t revealing much in the way of details.
For that, you’ve got to check in with people like Valerie Arroyo, who’s been competing in the Phoenix Idiotarod since 2009 and is known as one of its more creative participants. Her inspired themes over the years have included a squad of green plastic Army men and a group of Minifigures from The Lego Movie. This year, Arroyo is all about Banksy.
“At first, I was thinking he cut up a regular phone booth diagonally and then flipped one side,” Arroyo says, studying one of the anonymous street artist’s pieces (Death of a Phone Booth, 2006) on a laptop inside her west Valley townhouse. “But it looks like he added a piece right there in the middle.”
Arroyo and Jessica Wilkinson, her cousin and frequent Idiotarod collaborator, are trying to figure out how Banksy created the piece, which forms the basis of their cart this year. The team’s costumes will also each depict a different work from Banksy’s oeuvre — Arroyo is going as Umbrella Girl; her boyfriend, Nick Woike, will be The Flower Bomber.
“We’re pretty intense,” Arroyo says. “A lot of people want to be on our team, and then I tell them what it entails: ‘You’re going to have clown paint on your face. You’ll have to pitch in for one-fifth of the supplies we need. People are going to throw stuff at you.’ We’ve had three people back out.”
But for Arroyo, the Idiotarod has benefits beyond the debauchery.
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“I have major social anxiety,” she says, “so I typically pick themes with costumes where you don’t see my face. I was WyldStyle for The Lego Movie team. When my face is covered, I can just be a totally different human being — I’m outgoing and sabotaging people.”
Like most Idiotarod participants, she’s uninterested in being the first team to finish. There’s a thrill to the competition, but it relates to one-upping the other teams in terms of total nonsense (the sabotage, the costumes, the carts), as opposed to setting some record time.
“We’ve had people take the event way too seriously and finish hours before everyone else,” Pantsmaker says. “You never want to come in first. That’s missing the point.”
The 2020 Phoenix Idiotarod is scheduled for Saturday, February 8, in downtown Phoenix. See the Arizona Cacophony Society's website for details or to register a team (through February 7).