“Maybe it’s time to bring it back to the 80s.”– Dalal Elsheikh
There’s nothing like the roar of the engine, the gentle caress of wind as a car drives down an open highway. For many people, cars are more than just transportation, they represent freedom and creativity. They are an extension of an owner’s personality, hours of tender love and care. For these people, their love of cars began as a wide-eyed curious kid checking out the toy aisle and discovering the magic of Hot Wheels. To them, these scale model cars were more than just a car. They were an extension of the imagination. Their customized/modified designs that bordered between caricaturizing and fantasy (often with big rear tires) sped inside the plastic racetracks. Some designs incorporated superchargers, flame paint jobs, outlandish proportions, hood blowers, marrying the outlandish with passion.
Many of those young children would grow up to custom design their own adult-sized cars, maybe not with the same illegal concepts but the same wide-eyed curiosity they had when they first took home that Hot Wheels collection.
Now with NBC’s Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge, they can bring their own creative design to life on an actual Hot Wheels car. Ultimate Challenge combines people’s love for cars, their creativity with the everlasting recognizable Hot Wheels brand.
In celebration of this unique and fun show, The Koalition spoke to the groundbreaking leader in real automotive design, Dalal Elsheikh, who is not only one of the judges on the show but is a vehicle designer, a futurist, a Hot Wheels Brand Ambassador, and a designer for the Ford Motor Company.
Hosted by Rutledge Wood, Ultimate Challenge is not your average restoration reality TV show. Each episode features two enthusiastic car fanatics who have a personal connection with their average-looking car. Whether it’s the family car, or their first car; their personal attachment raises the emotional stakes as they compete against each other, transforming their car into an “extraordinary Hot Wheels showstopper.”
Joining them are a team of automotive experts known as The Car Pool who come from all parts of the automotive world to give them a unique perspective. From welders, fabricators, restoration specialists and designers. If you can dream it, the Car Poolers know how to enhance it and help to turn that dream into a reality. In addition, contestants are armed with a high-tech garage, stocked with everything they may need for their design.
For Dalal, her unique perspective is rooted in her upbringing and international experiences. As a Sudanese American designer thriving in a white male-dominated industry, she was raised and born in New Jersey but spent years in Sudan. Despite the cultural divide of both countries, Hot Wheels bridged the gap between both worlds and impacted how she thought about cars and their international appeal.
“In Sudan, importing vehicles is a little bit more difficult, so you don’t see a lot of newer cars and there are brands of vehicles that you see there that you don’t see here and vice versa. For example, there are no BMWs in Sudan. Very rarely do you see a BMW. It’s a very different automotive culture and because the cars are older, they’re a little bit more Plug and Play, whereas these newer vehicles today have a lot of electronic components that are harder for the home mechanic or [a] DIY [person] to really get in there and mess around with.”
“Whereas in Sudan you can be in the backyard reconstructing the frame of your car. You and your brother are just hanging out. It’s a very different culture and it’s a scrappier culture because Sudan is considered ‘the third world’ and necessity breeds innovation. I do like to take this approach of DIY and find clever hacks. Certain design choices help. Someone once described my undergrad cohort as being ‘scrappy’ and I really like that phrase because it’s not an expensive or an elitist school but because we had a lack of resources, we [would] rethink the way things were done. I bring that [to the show]. That’s something I like to blend into America’s automotive culture, but I think that’s also pretty healthy here in the US. The culture of car modification has a lot of that scrappiness, which I really appreciate now being a part of the Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge.”
Sixteen contestants compete to transform cars from their past into the life-sized Hot Wheels of their dreams in the hopes of winning a life-changing cash prize — and seeing their creation made into a Hot Wheels die-cast toy that anyone can buy. What separates Ultimate Challenge from other competition shows is not gameplay or challenges, but the creativity and artistry of the Hot Wheels brand.
“We judge them similarly [to how we judge real cars] but also very differently, because there is the nuance of the fact it is meant to be a toy. It’s meant to be fun and exciting. It does not have to be road legal; it doesn’t have to be street legal, [it] doesn’t have to be race legal. You can be as imaginative as you want. We take the lens of automotive design a lot when we talk about silhouette and flow and how body lines are supposed to move and the fitment of wheels. But, when it comes to just how fun it is, how bold and exciting it is, [we ask] ‘how much does it speak to the Hot Wheels brand.’ [It’s at this moment] we’re really thinking like toy designers more than we are automotive designers.”
Also joining the show are a litany of celebrity judges, ranging from Jay Leno, Anthony Anderson, Joel McHale, Terry Crews and Sung Kang. The winner of each episode will take home $25,000 and the chance to get into the finale, where three lucky finalists will transform another car in hopes of winning a legendary prize: An additional $50,000 and the honor of having their build made into an official Hot Wheels die-cast car.
What’s even more suspenseful is how the show and celebrity judges decide the winners. “We don’t vote as a collective. We vote independently, so whatever our guess or whoever our guest judge wants to vote for, that’s kind of on them. And then everything gets tallied by someone else on the production team. We don’t really have a say in who they vote for, we let them come in and just feel it with their heart which vehicle they felt had the biggest transformation or really told the Super Fan Story the best. [It’s] all really up to them.”
“We don’t know who they voted for, so there’s that moment where [Rutledge] is gearing up to tell everyone who won. We don’t know until he says it. This is just as suspenseful for us as it is for everyone else. There are some episodes where I’m like, ‘I think this one should have won.’ I will [not] know who everybody else voted for unless they tell me.”
For a brand that has lasted over 58 years, that has completely disrupted the industry for small die-cast car models, there are significant key elements that represent the Hot Wheels brand each contestant must implement in their design. “We actually go in and we have a list of criteria we’re judging based off of and we tally up our score at the end of it to make the decision on who won. We’re looking at things like how original this concept is. Does it look like something we’ve never seen before? How well is it executed? Are the lines clean? Are the materials well finished? Are the surfaces well executed? How well does it speak to the Hot Wheels brand language? Is it bold? Is it vibrant? Is it loud? Does it have those crazy elements like the exposed engine, like crazy exhaust things, like bright flames or Spectra flame paint?”
“Those are the things we’re really looking for and, of course, how transformed it is, and how much of that Super Fan story has actually been implemented into the design. Those are the criteria that are really important to us. In automotive design you’re not thinking about all those things necessarily. You’re thinking about a vehicle program and looking five to ten years out and what the industry might need and what level of autonomy we’re going to be working on. It’s almost two separate worlds, but it’s a lot of fun.”
Joining Ford as an autonomous vehicle designer in 2021, Dalal continues to climb the ladder of success, inspiring women of color to pursue their dream of working in the automobile industry. She believes if someone has a passion for car design, there are many career paths for them to take. “I got into automotive design in the most boring way. I just went to school for it. I went to school for it, and I had to put in the hours, and I built the portfolio, but of course, I know design school is incredibly expensive and it’s not easy.”
“I would tell people if that’s not the path you want to take, start practicing. Thankfully, there are so many tutorials online. Places like YouTube are full of a large breath of different videos and sketching tutorials where you can kind of learn the way automotive designers sketch cars because it’s not a normal type of drawing. There are these automotive tricks that help us convey information. If you really want to put in 10,000 hours and build a portfolio and start sending out your work, I think there’s a real pipeline into the industry. It’s not easy, it’s going to take a lot of time.”
Being on Ultimate Challenge has impacted how Dalal thinks about the future of the car industry. While automotive modification won’t necessarily be the blueprint for car companies anytime soon, maybe there’s still a lot to learn from a simpler time. “Automotive modification is a lot of times it’s happening on older cars, so you’re not going to see a new car off the lot ’20, ’23, 2024. Someone putting a body kit on it just doesn’t happen too often, but honestly, maybe that’s something we should kind of revert back to. Maybe cars should be built simpler? Sometimes I do think about how difficult it is to work on your own vehicle. It’s such a gate-kept industry. The mechanics of a car and engineering have only made it more difficult. So, maybe it’s time to bring it back to the 80s when things were just like plug in your alternator and keep it moving.”
“What’s interesting about being in the space is where there is a lot of restriction, which is not something I realized when I was in school; there is a lot of obviously legal implications when we’re thinking about things like self-driving or the safety of your driver and your passenger; so, you don’t get to be as blue skies as maybe I got to be when I was in school. Certainly not as blue sky as we are on the show. [Being on Ultimate Challenge] really helped me be more creative in the way that I get around certain rules and certain restrictions and certain guidelines. It’s really helped me exercise my muscle in these tight constraints.”
To learn more about Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge, check out our full interview in the video above. All episodes of the show that have aired so far are available to stream on Peacock. The finale is scheduled on NBC on August 1st.