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Jim Smentowski waits for the guy wearing a helmet and combat fatigues to unlock the doors leading to the fighting cage. The ersatz soldier looks back and signals the all clear. Smentowski and two helpers crouch and push a 200-pound wheeled robot named Nightmare up a ramp and into the cage with 19-foot walls made of inch-thick clear Lexan.
Nightmare is the robot to watch this August weekend at the first-ever BattleBots competition held at the Long Beach Pyramid basketball arena. The double- elimination contest pits remote-controlled vehicles against each other, in the sport known as "robotic combat." Destruction is encouraged.
Smentowski wheels his robot to one end of the cage. A veteran of previous bouts, he's had time to consider his past defeats. Nightmare, his latest creation, looks like a bastardized Big Wheel tricycle. Its primary weapon is a large steel disk with metal prongs that spins at 300 mph.
The BattleBots safety inspection team has admired Smentowski's unique design, but halfway through the weekend's competition, it gave him an ultimatum: Either drop out of the event and accept a special award, or modify Nightmare to render the spinning disc less dangerous. In a pre-event demonstration, Nightmare pulverized a 50-gallon steel drum, and in its first few BattleBots matches, it tore up its competitors and tossed debris up into the air.
To appease event producers, Smentowski, a model builder for George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic, has agreed to reverse the direction of the spinning disc, so that when Nightmare chews up its opponents, the ensuing carnage is thrown to the ground instead of being hurled skyward.
As the crew positions Nightmare for combat, two girls enter the cage, holding up spray-painted cardboard signs that read "Night Mare." The crowd cheers.
Across the steel floor of the cage waits Killahurtz, a robot from England piloted by John Reid. Rectangular and low-slung, Killahurtz is built from clear Lexan, a polycarbonate material used in riot shields, and features a giant pneumatic-powered ax. Unfortunately, the ax was damaged in an earlier bout, and Killahurtz must face Nightmare without its primary weapon. Killahurtz's only hope is to disable Nightmare by ramming it into one of the spikes or rotating circular saw blades that periodically rise from the cage floor without warning to liven up the robot duels.
An announcer gives the signal -- "Three, two, one, KICK BOT!" -- and the robots approach each other to a driving disco beat. Nightmare's wheel revs up to maximum speed. The robots smash together in an explosion of parts, and furiously attempt to slam each other into the spinning saw blades. One blade catches Killahurtz and shears off a chunk of Lexan.
Smentowski and Reid stand just outside the wall, working their remote control units, following the action as intently as big game hunters out on the veld. Their only movement is their fingers, wiggling joysticks and switches.
Killahurtz is much quicker, and scoots Nightmare into a corner. Killahurtz retreats, then suddenly zooms the length of the cage, plowing into Nightmare's spinning wheel with a tremendous smack. The crowd screams its delight, nerds cheering in bloodless bloodlust. Killahurtz again plows into Nightmare, and with 10 seconds left in the fight, flips the mechanical beast onto its back. Hundreds of tennis shoes stomp the bleachers in approval. Nightmare goes down in defeat.
Smentowski and Reid laugh and shake hands, as assistants sweep robot detritus from the floor. Ultimately, Killahurtz will win second place in the tournament, and Nightmare will be awarded Most Aggressive Robot.
The BattleBots competition has attracted 75 robots and their support crews to Southern California on this August weekend, all vying for $25,000 in prize money. Several teams are from the Bay Area, others from across the country, and two groups have flown over from England to compete.
It is the first robotic combat event in California since 1997, and the competitors have spent two years waiting for this moment. At one end of the arena, called the Pit, nervous builders tinker with their creations between bouts, replacing damaged parts and recharging battery packs.
Sounds of power tools and shearing metal fill the air, accompanied by the unmistakable spirit of adolescent geekiness. Violence is always primal and compelling, and when it's presented as a sporting contest, an audience can't wait to cheer on the bloodshed. And if this violence is perpetrated by a group of people who aren't usually associated with savagery, it can be as fascinating to watch as the junior high geek who gets into a fistfight. Nerd testosterone always demands attention.
A CNN camera crew chases down Greg Munson, who is co-producer of BattleBots, along with his cousin, Trey Roski. "It's the sport of the future," Munson tells the reporter. "The sport of the new millennium."
Anyone listening in might get the impression that Munson and Roski invented the idea of robotic combat. But, in fact, the sport first debuted in 1994 at a drafty warehouse in San Francisco's Fort Mason.
Back then, the annual event was called Robot Wars, and for four years it attracted international attention as the first-of-its-kind venue for robotic carnage. Roski and Munson were competitors at the original Robot Wars, as was Smentowski and many of the others who have shown up in Long Beach for BattleBots.