Introduction: Pac-Man Soapbox Derby Car

Each year I enter a local adult gravity race.  A gravity race is basically a soapbox derby.  Cars race down a hill powered only by gravity. Soapbox derbies on the moon are really boring.  For me, the derby is equal parts race and art exhibit. There is a tremendous amount of creativity in the cars.

For this year's car I had the idea to make a full size replica of an arcade machine. But the key feature would be to have the machine playable.  So I got a pile of wood, an old TV, and a plu-and-play Pac-Man game and locked myself in the garage for a few weeks.

This Instructable will walk you through the steps to create your own version of this car.

Step 1: Materials and Supplies

For this project you will need an array of tools and materials.  There are some craft-like elements and woodshop stuff too. So if you've never picked up a hammer before you should ask your dad for help. Wouldn't hurt if you knew how to weld either.  Before you make a supplies list you should finalize your design.
  • Resources
  • Wood:
    • 3/4 inch plywood
    • 2X4 studs
    • 1/4 plywood
  • Metal
    • two 36" 5/16 threaded rods (with nuts and washers)
    • two 36" square tubing
    • go-cart steering kit including spindles and brackets (check on eBay)
    • Metal Mesh or screen
  • Hardware
    • Various screws
    • nuts and bolts
    • eyehooks
    • turnbuckles
  • Paint
    • spraypaint
    • water-based enamel paints
  • 1 sheet of eigth inch clear acrylic plastic
  • There are a million different things needed for this project.  I'l mention them as I go along.
  • Plug-and-play Video Game Unit

Step 2: Body

Let's begin. The first thing is to make a deck by cutting a rectangle out of 3/4" plywood that is the overall length and width of the arcade machine. Then add strength and structure to it by attaching a 2X4 to each side of the deck with decking screws.

Next, draw a side piece onto a sheet of 3/4" plywood with pencil. Cut it out using a jigsaw.  Use that piece as a pattern to trace onto a second sheet of plywood and cutout.

Using decking screws attached the two sides to the deck.  This creates the basic sledge of the SBD car.

This is a good time to create the marque section.  Two sections of plywood make the top and bottom of the marquee housing.  You can secure the bottom section in place now but leave the top piece off for now since more needs to be done to it for the front grill of the car.  1/4X1/4 wooden sticks can be used to create the sill of the marquee by gluing in place.

Step 3: Steering

The steering is the most complicated part of the SBD car.  I suggest getting a go kart steering spindle kit.  You can get one online for under $30.  Some welding will be required.  The spindle kit includes two "C" brackets that will hold the spindles.  These need to be welded to the axle. If you can't weld, try finding someone on Craiglist. This welding job will take an experienced welder 10 minutes, tops. This same person can also weld the steering column which is basically an L shape with another C bracket at one end.

Once everything is welded, drill holes in the side of the car and insert the axle.  In order for the steering rod to reach from the spindle to the steering column you'll need to drill large holes in the sides.  So attach the spindles to the brackets and mark where those large holes need to be.  Once they are drilled out, use a file/rasp to smooth out the edges of the holes.

Secure the axle in place against the deck with U bolts.  If you can find square U bolts then I'm jealous because I could not find any of the appropriate size. So I just used round.

To connect the steering spindle to the steering column bracket it is a complicated series of threaded rods, turnbuckles, eyebolts, andbolts.  It's kind of difficult to explain so I drew a picture if it and attached.  You'll get the idea or can improvise based on your own design.  Just wander around the hardware store until you find stuff that will work.

Step 4: TV Monitor and Game System

The second complicated thing is to mount the TV monitor and game system into the SBD car.  I do not expect that you'll have the exact same TV that I do. So you're kind-of on your own here.  You need to make your TV fit.

Just take note of the angle of the game surface and make mounts for the TV within the SBD car.  If you use a flat screen TV, and have the TV mounting bracket, then you're golden.  Use that to secure the TV from moving. The rest can just support the TV in the right position.  I used a cross member beam and two supporting pieces.

Cut a piece of plywood to use as the gameing surface. The size of your TV will determine the size and shape of the opening.  Trace the game unit and cut a hole to insert the game unit.

Step 5: Paint

Depending on the quality of the playwood you used you might have to do a fair amount of finsh work.  Use wood filler to smooth out any imperfections in the surfaces.  Sand and wipe the dust of in preparation for priming and painting.

Prime the entire car with a water-based stainblocking primer.

Paint the inside black and the outside yellow.  Since the car will be stood up when it's played you should paint the bottom too so there is a finished look to the car.  One detail that you shouldn't miss is that the edges of the cabinet are orange. Use a paint roller to apply orange paint ot the edges.

Step 6: Brakes

Brakes can be a simple friction brake that rubs on the ground. Cut a hole in the floor of the car near one side.  Mount a piece of wood that pivots on a lag bolt so when you pull up on the wood the other end rubs against the ground.  Make a brake pad by covering one end with a slice of bicycle tire. 

Step 7: Details and Graphics

The feature that make vintage arcade cabinets pieces of art is the side graphics. They each had big, bold screen printed images on the sides.  Pac-Man machines have the familiar scene of a ghost chasing Pac-Man over a maze with the cool Pac-Man font in tricolor lettering. 

To recreate this on your soapbox derby car it's best to make a stencil/pattern. Download the image files from the website I recommended in the Tools and Materials step.  Using MS Paint, print them out, on multiple pages, in fill size.  Color is optional (as you can see from the images below I ran out of color ink in the middle of printing.  But this is no biggie.

Once you have the pages printed out start taping them together to get the full size image.  Carefully cut out the major shapes to create a stencil.  Trace them onto the side of the SBD car lightly with pencil. 

Use acrylic paints to complete the side graphics. 

Step 8: Marquee

The second most important feature of an arcade machine is the marquee.  Arcades cane alive to the warm glow of the backlit marquees.  To create yours you'll need a sheet of acrylic plastic (plexiglass).  Cut it to size with a jugsaw based on the dimensions of the marquee section of your car.

The design can be painted using acrylics.  But to get the best affect, it is best to paint the back-side of the glass.  So you'll work backwards.  Start with the black outline and layer the other colors after that.  Also, make sure the image is backward.  Print it out and trace the black outline using a Sharpie paint marker (I found these to work much better than paint and brush).  Once the black dries, start flooding the rest with yellow, blue, and red.  When everything is dry, spray the whole thing white.  Then from the front it will be perfectly smooth design.

Mount the finished marquee using glazing points (little metal things that hold window panes into their frames)

Step 9: Grill

For the front grill of the car, use a sheet of metal grating backed by a painted piece of 1/4 plywood.  Secure the 3 layers with nails.  Use more plywood to make an emblem for the front of the car.

Step 10: Sponsorships

Every racer needs sponsors. Who else is going to pay for new tires and stuff? So start by calling around.  Below are some potential corporate sponsors that you can contact.  They will send large amounts of money in return for displaying their corporate logo on your car. 
Once they send you the logo stickes, place them on the side of your car.  To make sure they are applied neatly, make a guideline with some masking tape.
Potential Sponsors:
  • Best Buy, Inc. 1-888-237-8289
  • SiriusXM Radio 1-866-635-2349
  • Five Guys Enterprises 703-339-9500

Step 11: Battery Pack

The TV isn't going to power itself.  So you'll need a 12 volt battery.  You'll need what's called a 'deep cycle' battery. This is a battery that can be discharged deeply and recharged without damage.  A car battery isn't a deep cycle battery and would not last very long if discharged and recharged repeatedly.  You'll also need a power inverter. This is a device that converts the DC current from the deep cycle battery to the AC current required to power the TV.  You'll find one cheaply on eBay or Craigslist.  Just hook the red wire from the inverter to the positive terminal of the battery and the black to the negative (don't do it the other way around; I found that out the hard way and now have no eyebrows).  Then plug the TV into the inverter and voila.

But this set-up looks terrible. And you run the risk of some s**t-head little kid grabbing the terminals on race day.  Plus, the battery contains liquid acid and lead so it's really heavy.  So you'll want to build a housing for the battery that has wheels.  Cut four sides out of plywood that is a few inches taller than the battery (so that there is room for the hook-ups).  Then add a bottom and a lid with hinges.  Put some casters on the bottom so you can move it around easily.  I added a handle (from a snow shovel) so I could easily move the unit around.  Then, trick it out Ghostbusters style! Ghostbusters and Pac-Man have a common enemy. So why not create a cool hipster mashup by combining them. 

Step 12: Helmet

Safety first, kids.  You'll need a helmet.  If you paint your helmet, sand it using 200 grit (or finer) wet sandpaper and water.  Wipe off any residue with a towel and allow to dry.  Use enamel spray paint to create details.

Step 13: Race

The race was held on May 5, 2012. I did pretty well. The race is a double elimination bracket...I lost my first heat, won my second, and was eliminated after losing the third. But, I did win the "crowd-pleaser" award and took home a trophy. 

Game.Life 2 Challenge

Finalist in the
Game.Life 2 Challenge