In the 1966 cult classic King of Hearts, the inhabitants of an insane asylum take over a provincial town in France that has been temporarily evacuated during World War I. Over the course of one day, the lunatics transform the conservative little town into a whimsical kingdom, with royalty, whores, barbers, and clowns, all of equal consequence.
In Ferndale, Calif. -- a sleepy town located just a few miles south of Eureka -- the spirit of the King of Hearts is alive and well in the form of the Kinetic Sculpture Race, an annual event that transforms Humboldt County into a topsy-turvy Wonderland, where RV mechanics become seafaring clams and bicycles become giant angel dogs.
The "race" started in 1969, when a Ferndale artist named Hobart Brown decided to decorate his son's unsightly tricycle. The tricycle became a "pentacycle," a mechanical aberration with five wheels, two seats, and a couple of plant holders. Brown was slightly embarrassed by his creation, but a metal sculptor named Jack Mays saw it and decided that he should make a "kinetic sculpture" of his own. That's all it took.
"In America," says Brown, "if you have two of anything, you have to race."
The first race was scheduled for Mother's Day, at the end of Ferndale's annual crafts fair. The word spread. On the day of the event, thousands of people from all over the county lined Main Street in Ferndale, and a dozen artists showed up to race on gangly contraptions of questionable creative merit. Neither Brown nor Mays won the race, but the quaint town of Ferndale, with its Victorian bed-and-breakfasts and emerald-green dairy farms, became infected with a peculiar form of kinetic lunacy.
Twenty-nine years later, the Kinetic Sculpture Race draws tens of thousands of loyal, slightly deranged fans who follow the artist-racers' grueling three-day journey through three cities, an ice-cold bay, a river, two mosquito-infested sloughs, a muddy quagmire, and a cluster of sand dunes affectionately called "Dead Man's Drop." The sculptures have grown -- as large as 14 feet tall and 8 feet wide (sometimes larger, when the judges can be bribed, which is nearly always). As necessity requires, the list of rules has also grown. (Rule 3 of the Official Kinetic Racers' Handbook: Pit Crews must consist of humans only. Rule 9.1: If a Pilot is pregnant or in labor, that Pilot may be excused for a reasonable length of time.)
Similar races are popping up all over the world, but unlike many of the copycats, the Arcata-to-Ferndale contest is still free to spectators (as long as they "contribute to the grandeur and glory of the Great Race"). And, no matter what happens, the Kinetic Sculpture Race was the first of its kind.
The opening day of the race is bright and clear. Arcata is a college town, and students traipse down the streets in cutoff shorts and halter tops, laughing loudly as tourists roll in. Vehicular traffic is directed by a trail of yellow paper signs bearing the silhouette of a spindly, bald bird with outstretched wings. I am told that it is the esteemed Kinetic Chicken.
At 10 a.m., the town square is already crawling with people. An enthusiastic brass band makes a spirited ruckus in the center, where trim folks lounge on the grass munching on plates of noodles from surrounding cafes. Elderly people are lined up on the sidewalks in folding lawn chairs, waiting for the official trial run of three laps around the square (which has been known to take out more than a few racers).
"Some of the machines just fall apart right after the first lap," chuckles a white-haired man in a pale fishing cap.
Kinetic Art Judges -- a colorful assortment of miscreants in tuxedos, ball gowns, fake beards, and witches' noses -- examine the sculptures that have gathered on the surrounding streets and accept bribes (i.e., handmade mementos) from the pilots. The creations are varied: a yellow submarine made out of a septic tank, two intricate crocodiles, a pink Chia Pet, an electric-blue porpoise, a wedge of cheese, two tremendous shimmering watermelons, a Chinese fire dragon, a black widow, a sparkly green pea pod, an osprey, a Viking ship, a Roman chariot, a mushroom-covered stump, and countless more. Each craft is allowed a pit crew and a cheering squad.
Scratch's Last Ride -- a tremendous mangy dog with angel wings that wags its tail and flaps its mouth when pedaled -- is piloted by June Moxom, who once traveled cross-country for 23 months in a 1,500-pound sculpture with fellow sculptor Ken Beidelman. Scratch, which was the name of Moxom's recently deceased dog, is a popular favorite with a huge cheering squad that is dressed in red satin and angel wings, and includes a midget who carries an applause sign.
The voice of the Hurly Burly Man, a local DJ who has been covering the races for more than a decade, crackles through loudspeakers mounted on a flatbed truck. Next to him stands Hobart Brown, looking like the Wizard of Oz with his white hair, rosy cheeks, and top hat and tails; MC Bill Neil, in a purple-sequined jacket and bright yellow-green wig; the 1998 Rutabaga Queen, with her royal entourage; and Pierre Thunderbritches, a cartoonist from San Diego who is actually named Ted Suggs.