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Night Crawler 

Battle Royale

Wednesday, Jun 14 2000
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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.

"Mauler! Mauler! Mauler!" shout the four guys next to me.

"Mauler is fucking legendary," explains 32-year-old Stanley Svorenstein. "It really was banned in Britain. It's one brutal 'bot."

"Nightmare's no fucking slouch, though," counters Svorenstein's pal, an ocean liner engineer named "Misty" Bode. "That saw blade's gotta run at least 300 miles per hour."

The stoplight hanging on the side of the ring counts down to green and the robots fly out of their corners, Mauler looking like a giant spinning iron pot with weights and spikes revolving in a blur, and Nightmare appearing as a preternaturally possessed table saw. It's over in 45 seconds. Contact with the demonic centrifugal force of Mauler sends pieces of Nightmare hurling across the arena floor and into the bulletproof walls. (This tendency to turn opponents into shrapnel was one of the reasons Mauler was banned in Britain from Robot Wars, which is still taped as a TV show for the BBC, in an open arena. When BBC producers asked creator Charles Tilford to come back with a less dangerous robot, he laughed in their face and told them to get a less wussy arena.)

Not all fights are so easy. Many stretch on for the full three minutes, with robots ramming and rending, screeching and clawing, falling onto spikes or saw blades that rise from the floor unexpectedly, soaring the length of the arena to be struck by a sledgehammer, only to rise again, steely and determined. Renowned destroyers are always a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, but anything with legs, or the semblance of a face, gets a little more sympathy. Despite the audience's obvious love of machinery, it's only natural to feel an affinity for the more anthropomorphous robots. And despite its snarling countenance, San Francisco's little pink Mouser Mecha-Catbot is a favorite from the Robot Wars days.

"Nothing can hurt it," laughs a white-haired grandma of two named Celia Chapman. "It just keeps going until it flips over the other guy with its arm thingy." (Her grandkids, both robot enthusiasts, give her an "oh grandma" thingy-look.)

Another favorite is Tentoumushi, a 58-pound, sweet-faced ladybug (constructed primarily out of a child's sandbox) that is controlled by 13-year-old Lisa Winter, a Middleweight World Champion who hails from a family of robot enthusiasts in Wisconsin. Her first bout is against 98-pound Sallad from Concord, a mean little machine with a protruding hydraulic spike. Tentoumushi runs up to Sallad with a permanent smile and bobbing antennae, as if greeting an old friend, and quite suddenly her shell-like body lifts off the ground and comes down on the unsuspecting Sallad, capturing him inside. There is the sharp, painful sound of metal grinding until Sallad uses his spike to push his way out again. And so it goes, Tentoumushi continually capturing Sallad, pushing him over the dangerous trapdoors in the arena floor and grinding away at him until he batters his way out again.

Toward the end of four sold-out shows, after nearly 20 hours of robot combat, competitors and crew are looking tired, dirty, short-tempered, and frazzled. The titles and giant bolts that serve as trophies have been passed out -- Lightweight Championship to Team Nightmare's Backlash from Novato; Middleweight Championship to Hazard from Los Angeles; Heavyweight Championship to the Vladmeisters' Vlad the Impaler from Oakland (Mauler was beaten by Killerhurtz from Oxford, England); and the Super Heavyweight Championship to Cool Robots' Minion from North Hollywood -- and the congratulations have been scattered.

And despite weariness, and some disappointment, all the robot creators rally for what they consider the most fun part of the two-day struggle: The melee, when all the robots, in their various states of mangled disrepair, limp into the arena to beat each other until their nuts finally fall off. While the television coverage by Comedy Central can rarely do the robots' clashes justice (big machines look tiny on camera; small machines look huge), this is the point where the small screen completely fails. The lightweight "battle royale" is supremely absurd: The ChiaBot is back and leafy; Disposable Hero is little more than wires and wheels; No Tolerance II wears a for-sale sign that reads "Slightly used robot. Best offer." The small robots careen at each other in no particular order; they gang up on each other; they spare nothing and even up grudges; they smoke and sputter; they get tied up in knots of metal spikes, blades, and shovels; they twitch and quiver. And the crowd roars with laughter.

All together, the larger machines are utterly deafening; the floor shakes; the walls tremble. It is inspiring, exhilarating, and grand. At the end, no one can remember ever feeling tired, and no one remembers to tell the kids that they're up past their bedtime on a school night.

Send comments, quips, and tips to crawler@sfweekly.com.

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Silke Tudor

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