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The lights are blinding and the arena is ominous, 48 square feet surrounded by 19-foot-tall walls made of 1-inch polycarbonate. The crowd is hungry for it: Eyes feverish, necks straining to get better views of the carnage inside, fans grin and point, quite literally salivating with delight. Giant sledgehammers protruding from each of the four corners pound the arena floor, providing rhythm for the unrelenting chant: "Fight! Fight! Fight!" Huge spinning saw blades and beds of spikes rise out of clouds of smoke, causing the roar of the audience to approach a roof-shaking pitch as the combatants wait for the signal. In a shriek of metal, Ziggo spins away from the red starting square, flying toward his faceless opponent with unfeeling, unrelenting fury. In less than two minutes, the Missing Link has been dismembered. The crowd rises with a roar, then settles again, waiting impatiently for the next spectacle. The Missing Link's creator enters the arena to cradle his robot lovingly in his arms, picking up the stray wheels and pieces of metallic shrapnel that have been torn from its body. He smiles and shakes the hand of his opponent, who juggles his remote control with the well-earned ease of the triumphant. After a full year of preparation, it comes down to a three-minute bout, and there can be only one winner.
This is BattleBots. Produced by Petaluma's Trey Roski and Oakland's Greg Munson, it is the true robot lovers' successor to the Bay Area-based Robot Wars, an event whose growing popularity was nearly snuffed out in 1997 by greed and litigation after only four short years. Happy as hell to do battle for producers who were once robot combatants themselves, Roski's and Munson's BattleBots has drawn many of Robot Wars' superstars, among them Team Sinister, Team Blendo, and Team Nightmare, and, for such a young sport, the fans in the crowd are extremely knowledgeable about their mechanical heroes.
"Where's La Machine?" asks fidgety 10-year-old Shanna Nestor.
"That's Trey's machine," explains her well-built, heavily tattooed father. "I don't think Trey can compete now that he's producing the show." In fact, Roski has entered a robot in the super heavyweight division, a 312-pound monster named Ginsu that rides on 12 spinning saw blades, but it's hardly a conflict of interest; after all, the rest of the contestants in the division are all close personal friends of Roski. In fact, a tour around the "pit," a sprawling well-lit shop filled with 75 workstations, hundreds of people, and the ceaseless roar of electric drills and blowtorches, offers evidence that all the robot builders are close personal friends.
"This is still a very tightknit community," says mechanical special effects designer Mark Setrakian, who created the 475-pound, $15,000 Mechadon, an exquisitely horrifying insectlike monster that lunges forth on six sharpened steel claws. "When this becomes a popular sport like pro racing, you might see designers become really cutthroat, and that'll suck. But right now it's just fun. We all come together from different backgrounds -- engineering, art, farm-equipment repair -- because we love robots. And we all help each other out."
The pit is a fevered domain of deranged scientists working against the clock, but it has its share of levity. Near a sign that jokingly designates areas for metal and areas for flesh, one team rifles through a pile of spare parts and tools, looking for an auxiliary carbon dioxide canister for a competitor, while another team swabs up a puddle of beer threatening to seep into their neighbor's voltage tester. T-shirts bear childish one-liners -- "Kick RoButt," "My Robot Can Beat Up Your Robot" -- and a little sign gives directions to the nearest hardware store.
Unlike Mechadon, which was clearly built with a passion for design rather than victory, many of the robots are beastly in their utilitarianism -- low, impenetrable, tanklike wedges with large protruding spikes and whirring saw blades. But even those designs give way to whimsy, as seen with ChiaBot, essentially a remote control plant box with a spinning flower on top, and the Aggressive Polygon, which releases two baby 'bots that serve no purpose but to sake the sadistic lust of the crowd, which inevitably chants "Kill the babies! Kill the babies!" once the host robot has been incapacitated.
Of course, from ringside you'd never know there was so much goodwill behind the scenes. The controllers are safely outside of the arena, their eyes focused on the opposition, remotes clutched in sweaty palms.
A hush falls. The announcer enters the ring with perfect hair and a crisp tuxedo; colored lights sweep across the stage; the BotCrew stands by in ridiculous but highly entertaining Road Warrior garb, swinging crowbars with only as much menace as a mere human being could conjure in the presence of mechanical malevolence. The lights dim.
"In the red square, weighing in at 210 pounds. So bad it was banned in Britain. It's the Mauler!"
"And in the blue square, also weighing in at 210 pounds. Machined for mayhem and created for chaos. It's Nightmare!"
The crowd screams and hunches forward like a single-minded animal. Signs appear. No matter that they've been passed out by BotCrew for the sake of TV cameras; the rabid enthusiasm is not coached.