Night Crawler

After warnings about vehicular sabotage by the Dastardly Razooly -- a local businessman who recently opened the area's first strip club -- someone yells, "For the Glory," and the machines begin their journey out of town toward Manila Beach. Some members of the crowd, now thousands strong, make their way to their cars and follow the procession down Highway 225, which is lined with Winnebagos and camper vans with lawn chairs on top.

Outside the Manila Community Center, a blues-rock band encourages the racers, but there is little time for revelry. Pit crews quickly transform street tires into sand wheels by affixing wooden slats crossways on the treads, so the slats improve traction much as snow chains do. (These slats are just some of the many pieces of navigational equipment carried aboard the sculptures.) The racers pedal down the beach, climbing slowly over several 30-foot dunes until they reach Dead Man's Drop -- a sand dune with a near-vertical down-slope. Surprisingly, all the sculptures make it to the bottom -- including one piloted by Dale "Grandpa" Olsen, a 72-year-old race veteran who is assisted by a 6-foot-and-more redhead in hot pants.

As they go down the Drop, most of the machines are slowed by ropes that the pit crews control. But the crowd is hungry for action; some shout, "Let 'em go!" even as the team from an elementary school descends the slope. Several fearless and foolhardy teams fly down the bank unassisted. One of the crocodiles rolls over twice. The crowd is sated.

At the bottom of the dunes, there is a forest and clouds of mosquitoes that swarm the racers' sweaty faces. The pit crews do their best to ward off the biters, frantically waving tree branches and T-shirts. Still, the heads of the pilots remain in a fog of biting insects, until the sculptures emerge from the trees and climb back onto the highway.

Then, it's on to Old Town Eureka and the balloon-festooned Bayshore Mall parking lot, where spectators are already dancing to Kenny Wayne Shepard on the radio. It's nearly dusk, so the racers park their mythical animals and off-kilter contraptions and set up camp.

Day two finds the racers up at dawn, making their way down Highway 101 to Fields Landing, where pit crews attach pontoons and wheel-paddles to the kinetic sculptures so they can be pedaled across Humboldt Bay. The morning is bleak and rainy, and the brass band playing on a barge a little offshore sounds somber at best. But the huge crowd gathered at the bay shore is undaunted.

"You think we're miserable?" says one Eureka resident. "Try crawling into that 40-degree water surrounded by a papier-máche watermelon. If you go down, hypothermia sets in in 20 minutes. Cheering them on is the least we can do."

As each sculpture enters the water, the crowd grows larger. Folks living in dilapidated houses nearby do a brisk business selling hot dogs and umbrellas (beer and spirits are frowned upon, as the racers are forbidden to drink). Clam I Am, driven by a husband-and-wife team, opens up its shell and catches a nice tail wind. Bass Ackwards, the creation of muralist Duane Flatmo, is a beautiful, glittering sea bass with a cubist fisherman pedaling on its back. It is the picture of elegance slipping into the water, but before long, the sculpture begins leaning heavily to one side. Flatmo and his co-pilot are forced to abandon fish and wait in the icy water until the Coast Guard can pull the craft to safety. A pontoon snaps off in the process.

With the day only half over, the kinetic sculptures proceed south for three miles to Point Drizzle, where they must cross a muddy slough to set up camp for the second night. It is slow going. Several craft get stuck in the bog and must be dragged out by their pit crews, which costs valuable race points. (Some judges, of course, are bribed to look the other way.) Racers who haven't encountered mechanical troubles arrive at camp exhilarated. The rain begins to let up, and fires are lit. Tents are erected, and supporters arrive bearing truckloads of food. Funguy, the jovial driver of the mushroom-covered log, spreads joy in the form of boozy howls of "Fun Guy!" Flatmo and his team dry their clothes and attempt to re-weld their pontoon arm.

Day three is lazy by kinetic standards, with only one more slough crossing, a quick sail across the Eel River, and a struggle up the Slippery Slimy Slope. By now, though, some of the racers are looking haggard. Bucky the Clown, who pedals a yellow bomb called Speed Bump, has lost all of his clown makeup, and first-time racer Scott Lawyer has lost his entire pit crew.

At the Slippery Slimy Slope -- a muddy grade surrounded by trees and more mud -- spectators wearing rubber waders and yellow slickers have been waiting for hours.

"Everyone has their favorite part of the race," says a man whose folding chair has sunk into the mire until his rear end is hanging only a few inches above mud level. "This is mine. It's dirty and funny. The racers almost make it to the top, and they just come sliding down again."

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