On a mildly warm, overcast pre-autumn Saturday, roughly 75,000 people sat in the sand and stared at a Jumbotron on North Avenue Beach to watch average Joes glide off of a 30-foot high pier and plunge into Lake Michigan like sacrificial lambs appeasing the Third Coast Gods.
I could not help but be drawn to the Red Bull Flugtag USA competition this past weekend. Like all things Red Bull, the marketing campaign was swift and unavoidable. Whether I was buying cage free eggs at Potash Bros. or aspirin at CVS, I found myself staring at a small television next to the cashier promoting this year's upcoming Crash-'em-If-You-Got-'em extravaganza.
Days prior to the Saturday showdown, I was sitting at the Starbucks on North and Wells when I overheard three premed students studying organic chemistry veer off the subject of protein synthesis:
"Are you guys going to the flugtag thing this weekend?"
"Definitely, man. That looks cool as hell." Ah, aspiring doctors.
The idea behind flugtag is that flight might be possible one day without the use of mechanical engineering. Teams from around the country design a mobile contraption centered on a theme like "Santa and the Evil Elves." After spending up to three hours assembling a sled and attaching reindeers with wheeled hooves, the team spends the next few days deciding on the appropriate mix of music to play as they brandish human-sized candy canes and perform a tribal dance around the flying machine before take-down.
One mechanical belly flop after another makes it the only sporting event in which actual success would find itself on a blooper reel. After each disaster, a lineup of judges makes a pithy remark like, "Good effort, but I'm not feeling it," giving the day the American Idol component that has become a ubiquitous keepsake in all things pointless.
This occurs again and again with the theme as the only variable. Wizard of Oz. Detroit Red Wings. Chicago Blackhawks. Deep Dish Pizza.
Actually, for the record, Deep Dish pizza - officially known as Pie in the Sky - received the only applause break I witnessed. After eulogizing Chicago style deep dish and condemning its austere east coast progenitor, the team jumped into its dance routine to a self-styled parody of "Baby Got Back" called "Pizza Got Crust."
Perhaps this is not the time nor the place to wage this timeless debate about which style of pizza is better, but I did notice that the only reason Pie in the Sky got any air was because the piloted triangular top of the pizza separated from the bottom and glided an extra 20 feet. It wound up claiming third place at 90 feet. Aerodynamics. Just another thing New York style pizza has over its prodigal son.
The contest was ultimately decided not by the panel of local celebrity judges but by the distance from the podium the flugtags reached, which basically boils down to what is taller since the distance it reaches correlates to how far it flopped. Sears Tower beats Hancock.
Despite the repetitive showcase of mechanical belly flops, the beach was crammed with onlookers. However, only a small fraction of the crowd was lucky enough to see the debacle unfiltered. Everyone else was subjected to viewing it on a giant screen.
Interestingly, the five- and six-year-olds in attendance had quickly given up the on-screen flight dreams for more definitive castles made of sand. Teenagers and adults, on the other hand, refused to capitulate their spots despite making the same reflexive remarks, including, "That sucked," "I'm over this," and "Stupid." It's hard to say if that last remark was critical of the contestants or self-effacing.
To be fair, though, I'm sure the high attendance was lured by the high attendance rather than the actual event. There is something about a crowded beach with a singular purpose. Last chance to people watch. Last chance to show off that summer dress. Last chance to show off that gym membership. Last chance to realize you shouldn't be wearing a summer dress and need to join a gym.
And then there were the die-hard faithful. I'm speaking of the people who were not content to just watch the event on the screen, but flipped open their cell phone video cameras to record the screen so they have something to remember nothing by.
I heard one confused 20-something brunette ask her boyfriend, "Aren't they supposed to get some air?"
Yeah, like Newton's apple.
Make no mistake about it: Red Bull knows what it's doing. If 75,000 people showed up, then at least a million heard about it. Some schmucks are even writing about it. If I were running for president, I would want Red Bull running the campaign. It dominates 90 percent of the energy drink marketplace. And here it is, flaunting its status by sponsoring an event that turns high hopes into feeble disasters. How much more brazen could a company be than marketing its energy product via crash-and-burn competition? Wheaties aligns itself with gold medalists. Red Bull aligns itself with five-and-dime failures.
I don't know anyone who eats Wheaties.