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.
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."
Guardian of the Sea, a rowboat piloted by four members of the U.S. Coast Guard, has just such a problem, but the Cheesy Rider, piloted by the gray-haired Tony Kerreman, glides through without trouble.
"It's all about practice," says a mud-splattered fan. "In four or five years they [the Coast Guard members] will be able to compete."
At the home stretch, Hobart Brown's Kinetic Bus has suspiciously crossed the finish line first. It is duly ignored. Thousands of people, some of them authentic war veterans in full military regalia, line the street, cheering and blowing small horns as the racers roll in.
After much back-slapping, the racers proceed to the awards ceremony, where Bass Ackwards comes away with "Overall Winner," Scratch wins the "Best Art" category, and two teen-age boys driving the Titanic (which did sink along the way) come away with the "Mediocre Award." (It's an automobile signed by every team; the car even runs.) After the "Speed Award," "Spirit Award," "Engineering Award," and a couple of awards made up just for the occasion are bestowed, everyone else gets "Losers Awards" handcrafted by Hobart Brown.
"No one should come away empty-handed," says Brown.
And no one does.
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By Silke Tudor