So You Want to Be a Racing President? Here's What It Takes.
“My ego is bigger than these heads,” Heidi says to me with the confidence of DeSean Jackson. The former cheerleader is one of 50 people trying out to be one of the beloved Racing Presidents. These are big heads to fill: the Washington Nationals mascots are tasked with making even the gloomiest of games tolerable, and then there are all the off-field appearances at rich people’s "patriotic" weddings.
I happened to have the honorable opportunity to try out, too, and I lived through it to tell all. If you're looking for the gig next year, here's what you need to know.
What’s it like in there?
“Put it on like a backpack,” my handler instructs me. As I began my transformation to The Great Emancipator, I find myself hoping I don’t have to deal with Mary Todd, too. She was a handful, and I already have a 50lb noggin to battle against. Fastening the weight support straps around my torso, I realize the foul, sweaty smell I was expecting can only be described as a less than fresh Uber ride. Phew.
The biggest surprise, then, is the lack of ventilation. (You thought there were fans up there too, didn’t you?) Think about that the next time you’re panting from retrieving a beer at an August game. The head is as unwieldy as it is heavy. I felt like Chiquita Banana with restricted vision. Lean forward and it’s over. Remember that.
What do I have to do?
There’s an important first step to this selection process: hopefuls apply with a cover letter and resume, just like any other normal job, and are then invited to audition. Typically, the call for applicants goes up in December.
Once you're in, think of auditions as American Ninja Warrior -- there are five obstacles you gotta tackle. After suiting up in heats of three, we first ran a timed 40yd dash. Forty yards is generous -- it looked more like 20, but who can gauge spatial relationships with a head like that?
Next, it’s time to race. Twice. Once around the periphery of the field, and then back again. So, you could potentially win (or lose) twice, or you could split victories with one of your competitors. While still sufficiently winded, you’re asked to pretend you’ve just won and strike a victory pose. The pose segues into 20 seconds of dancing.
Finally, it’s time to head inside to field questions from a panel (more on this later). Know that you will be grilled.
Back up -- I have to dance?
Yeah, but only for a hot sec. Think of it as your best chance to emote since you can’t talk. In case you want to prepare in advance (some contenders studied jigs on YouTube), note that you’ll likely be grooving to “Easy Lover” (so all the goofy dancing in the music video is fair game). The Phil Collins Pandora station is the official soundtrack of the Racing Presidents auditions. Luckily, the judges aren’t looking for a perfectly executed moonwalk.
“I’ve seen several people do the Macarena today, but I haven’t seen any whip-nae-naes,” says Tom Davis, the senior manager of entertainment for the Nationals. “We want to see something that stands out, but we’re not expecting expert dancers.”
What happens if I fall?
If physical comedy is your bag, baby (it’s mine -- I’ve seen Airplane! 57 times), you won’t be able to control yourself when a prez eats it. Unless your name hasn’t been called; in which case, one tumble plants another seed of terror.
“The first person that fell made us all feel better; at least it wasn’t me,” says a contestant named Tim. Falling first is like being the first person booted off the island in Survivor. Somebody’s gotta be The One. Fortunately, it doesn't impact your chances.
“When it happens, I like to see people get back up because that’s the hardest part,” Davis says. “It’s not about winning the race really; everybody who wins doesn’t get hired.”
... Nor does it hurt. Like, literally. “It’s all foam, so it feels like landing on a big pillow,” says a freshly fallen hopeful.
What’s my competition like?
From afar, the 50 contenders look like fresh-faced dudes gearing up for fraternity rush day. There were a lot of jocks trying to outstretch each other -- many admitting to being mascots in high school and college. Others probably wheel about town in Honda Civics with 26.2 bumper stickers.
As I got closer, I encountered a more diverse pool than my initial read. Take Rick, a septuagenarian who says the only thing that could pull him out of retirement from the Air Force was this gig. There were even a handful of other ladies, making the Racing President costumes the great equalizer.
What are they looking for?
Chemistry, charisma, and energy, according to Davis. But, there’s no denying the physicality. “Upper body strength is very important, but you don’t have to be Mr. or Mrs. Universe to be a Racing President,” Davis says. (Contestants say they trained by doing yoga, cardio, and lifting.)
During the panel questioning -- which felt as serious as the Benghazi hearing -- Davis and his colleagues wanted to know what we would do if heckled by fans, and how we would handle a child cowering in fear of the costume. Folks with prior mascot or cheerleading experience seemed to have an edge.
So, how’d I do?
I'm afraid my near nine-second dash time felt about a half hour slower than my competition. Call it foreshadowing because as Abe, I came in last in both races by the length of a battlefield. A chick from Sports Illustrated and a dude from USA Today CREAMED me. Only my Tebow-style victory pose and thrust-centric dancing made up for my otherwise slovenly performance. While I was ineligible as media, I think it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t have made the cut. At least I didn’t fall.
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Laura Hayes is a DC-based food, drink & travel writer who also contributes to Washington City Paper, Food Network, Arlington Magazine, and others. She will not be quitting her day job after her poor performance on the field. Follow her on Twitter @BTMenu.