How Tuk-Tuks reached Des Moines, Iowa, U.S.A

Matthew Smith stands with some of the Cushman vehicles that will be used in Sunday’s Tuck Tuk Goose Chase. / Michael Watson/Special to Juice

By Jess Knight, Oct 23, 2012, Via Des Moines Register

This weekend, the most fun way to get around Des Moines will be via “Tuk Tuk,” a type of vintage, three-wheeled auto rickshaw that’s as much fun to drive as it sounds.

The Tuk Tuk Goose Chase, happening this Sunday, will send 10 teams and their three-wheeled Cushman vehicles — a form of Tuk Tuk — around downtown Des Moines on a wild goose chase to complete five missions. The first team to complete all of the missions wins, but there is something for everyone, especially spectators.

“It’s a crazy relay-style race with three-wheeled machines,” Matthew Smith, 36, founder of the event, said. “It’s a whimsical idea, but if it makes people smile, that’s good enough for me.”

Let’s get back to what the heck a Tuk Tuk is — and why they’re in Des Moines — before we divulge the rest of the details on the event.

Last year, Smith’s friend Steve suggested the two of them go to India to race Tuk Tuks, three- wheeled, cabin-style, motorized vehicles commonly used as taxis and other forms of urban transportation, mainly in developing countries.

Unfortunately, life got in the way of that plan, but Smith wasn’t discouraged.

“I thought, ‘why not bring the Tuk Tuks to Des Moines?’ ” he said.

Problem was, Des Moines didn’t have any Tuk Tuks — or many Cushman vehicles, which were once used for jobs like delivering the mail, picking up trash and getting around on the farm.

So Smith spent about six months tracking down 10 Cushman vehicles and brought them back to Des Moines for repair. He paid for the vehicles with $5,000 he was given at a bar.

“I was talking to a man over a game of pool about the idea,” he said. “He wrote me a check for $5,000 and told me to buy as many Tuk Tuks as I could with it.”

Most of the vehicles he found weren’t in great shape. Ones that were restored were about $1,300, ones that needed restoration were $500.

Most of the vehicles he found — in Omaha and other random barns, flea markets and junk yards in the Midwest — were in poor condition. He leased a garage space on the east side of town to house the vehicles while they were restored by a local mechanic. Then, things got fun.

Once restored to a drivable state, Smith had local artists, businesses and creative types sponsor, race and decorate the Tuk Tuks. Ten teams have each adorned a tuk. One is covered in yarn. One is painted like Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine. One is artfully covered in mosaic tile, done by a local mosaic artist.

Local filmmaker Kristian Day has documented most of the process, from tracking down the vehicles to repairing them to decorating them. This weekend, he’ll ride in the back of one and continue to record the event, and will eventually make it into a documentary.

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