Originally published in Arthur No. 9 (March, 2004)
A Slow, Strange and Grueling Thing
Writer-photographer Daniel Chamberlin ventures behind California’s Redwood Curtain to experience the three-day triathlon of the arts that is the Great Arcata-to-Ferndale Kinetic Sculpture Race
In the late 1930s frustrated residents of Northern California declared their intention to wage “patriotic rebellion” against California and Oregon. Tired of dealing with state governments that seemed more concerned with distant population centers—and not with repairing the decrepit bridges and mud-choked roads leading to their sparsely populated mining, fishing and timber communities—the people of Northern California and Southern Oregon took steps to secede from their respective states. The new state would be called Jefferson—a name arrived at by way of a newspaper contest—in honor of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the U.S. and patron saint of Libertarians and states’ rights crusaders. On December 4, 1941, Jefferson State’s residents set up barricades on the highway and elected Judge John L. Childs governor. At his inauguration he was photographed with a bear on a chain that appears to have a severed human hand in its jaws. Three days after Childs’ inauguration Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor and the Jefferson State movement was swept aside as the United States entered World War II. Though small in number, benign Jefferson State secessionists still hold meetings, run a Web site and paint slogans on their barn roofs. Recently, they tried to use the California’s gubernatorial recall fiasco to drum up support for their cause.
The Jefferson State movement points to a spirit of individualism that thrives in Northern California, especially in Humboldt County. People who live up in northernmost California like being away from it all: there’s time to develop interesting ideas, and enough of a community for those ideas to take root. Hobart Brown, a tiny, impish, 69-year-old man who lives in Humboldt, at the southern end of what could’ve been Jefferson State, is one of those people. He’s an aircraft mechanic, astrologer and wild pig hunter. He’s also the self-styled “Glorious Founder” of an event called The Great Arcata-to-Ferndale Kinetic Sculpture Race (KSR), an event has run every year since 1969.
The KSR is a vigorous all-terrain art parade held over the course of Memorial Day Weekend. Participants take three days to travel 38 miles in vehicles known as kinetic sculptures—usually recumbent bicycles frames mounted with some sort of sculptural art that’s often conspicuously wacky: poop-filled toilet, braying donkey, KISS Army Camaro, etc. For the 2003 race, the least noteworthy of the entries appearing on the starting line in Arcata is a gray-haired, bearded guy wearing a suit and riding a bicycle. The most imposing sculpture-vehicle is the 2,000-pound “Surf & Turf,” a dramatically psychedelic Day-Glo lobster. A bull’s head that bears a close resemblance to the distressed animal in Picasso’s “Guernica” is grafted on to the back of its abdomen. Six pilots sit inside dressed as chefs, complete with poofy white hats.
In order to complete the full race course in accordance with all of the rules—to “Ace” the course, in KSR terminology—the machines must maneuver over city streets and sand dunes, navigate across a mile of open water in Humboldt Bay and slog through the murky depths of a backwoods bog. They do all of this at an average speed somewhere around 2-3 mph, meaning the race never gets much faster than the wheelchair-bound vets in the Memorial Day Parade that precedes them at the finish line in Ferndale. The KSR combines the tedious pace and muddy wallowing of a tractor pull with the budget-minded engineering of a demolition derby and the physical punishment of an Iron Man triathlon. Dozens of participants return every year. Some have two decades of consecutive races behind them. The race means many things to many people, but as far as Hobart is concerned its primary purpose is to serve as a weapon against suicide.
* * *
You have to be seeking Humboldt County in order to get there. Garberville, the largest town in southern Humboldt, is 200 miles from San Francisco. The two largest towns in Humboldt—Eureka and Arcata—are over 70 miles further north. Though Jefferson State is now mostly history, it is a given with locals that Northern California, particularly Humboldt, is separate from the rest of California. This is attributed to a phenomena known as “the Redwood Curtain.” Thousands of people do make the trip to Humboldt though; tourism is one of the area’s trademark industries along with timber, fishing, folk art and marijuana cultivation. For his part, Hobart Brown subscribes to the theory that, along with Hawaii, Humboldt is one of the last outposts of Mu, a mythical lost civilization akin to Atlantis.
The best road to Humboldt from the rest of California is U.S. 101, though what is an eight-lane river of traffic down in Los Angeles is a two-lane trickle 500 miles up the coast in Hopland. The same freeway serves as a 25 mph main street further north in Willits and Laytonville. The towns stay charming, but as you move north there are fewer high-priced bistros and more stores selling generators, solar panels and livestock supplies. Outside towns, the road is flanked on either side by acres of farmland and deep forests. Country lanes open up throughout Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, lined by roadside invitations to join the landed gentry in their wine tasting rooms from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Once you’re in Humboldt, the grape arbors are mostly gone, replaced by what local drug folklore suggests is the scent of local marijuana crops wafting over the highway. The Eel River rides alongside the 101, and in the summer it’s not uncommon to see people pulled off to the side of the road and going for a dip. “Bigfoot Country” coin purses and redwood burl carvings are readily available, and there are several opportunities to drive your car through hollowed-out redwood trees. Local highway cleanup projects are sponsored by the Harley Riders Association, the Humboldt Area Pagan Network and a store called The Blessed Thistle. Logging trucks hauling gargantuan pieces of timber, farmers driving tractors between their fields and rusted VW buses filled with vintage hippies discourage speedy drivers. The archetypal Humboldt vehicle is a mud-spattered 4WD pickup truck with a Grateful Dead sticker and a National Rifle Association decal sharing the same bumper.
In Denis Johnson’s metaphysical California noir, Already Dead, the suicidal philosopher Carl Van Ness wanders this stretch of highway and describes these remote towns as “like little naps you might never wake up from—you might throw a tire and hike to a gas station and stumble unexpectedly onto the rest of your life, the people who would finally mean something to you, a woman, an immortal friend, a saving fellowship in the religion of some obscure church.” I didn’t begin to understand the Kinetic Sculpture Race until I was drunk, stoned and stumbling with a party of veteran racers spewing history and KSR gospel in equal measure as they camped on an isolated, driftwood-strewn beach. You don’t call yourself a local up here until you’ve been dug in for at least a generation, but there’s no better description of the appeal of Humboldt life to an outsider—or a more dead-on assessment of the cult that has risen up around the race that Hobart Brown started in 1969—than that of Johnson’s troubled pilgrim.
* * *
Hobart Brown claims the title of Glorious Founder of the Kinetic Sculpture Race, but race director Bill Croft runs the thing. Croft is a sewing machine repairman who moved to Humboldt County with his wife when he retired from the Coast Guard ten years ago. Although the racers are following an arcane set of rules that Hobart and others have developed over the last three decades, it’s up to Croft to make sure the race follows the rules in terms of city permits, traffic safety, insurance and crowd control. In a phone interview a week before the race he tells me that he knows a lot about Porta-Potties, that Hobart is “the worst businessman ever,” and that without his organizational assistance it was only a matter of time before the race was going be shut down.
Croft works with an organization called the Humboldt Kinetic Association (HKA), an alliance of local non-profit groups that purchased the KSR from Hobart last year with the intention of turning a somewhat anarchic event into a smoothly functioning, money-making venture. Croft says they’re talking about bringing in a “major corporate sponsor,” selling media rights and maybe charging some kind of admission. He would like this to be a more family-friendly event, and for everyone in the family to have a place to go to the bathroom.
A handful of participants don’t like Croft or the HKA because Croft comes from the world of non-profits—he was formerly the executive director of Tour of the Unknown Coast, a successful Humboldt County bicycle ride—and not from the ranks of KSR racers. Some participants seem indignant that they guy handling all the bureaucratic shit-work has never raced the course. To Croft’s credit, I can’t figure out why he’d want the job, seeing as it pays no money and mostly consists of covering the asses of people who seem to resent him.
“Whooo!” says Croft when I ask him what the veteran racers think of him and the HKA. “We’re seen as usurpers, like, ‘What have you people got buying our race?’” Ironically, given Croft’s investor-friendly intentions, the race was flat broke until about a week ago. “This year we took it in the shorts and we lost all our sponsorship,” he says, “but we asked everybody in the county to give us a dollar. About eight or nine thousand people did that.”
I let Croft off the phone so that he and his wife can finish programming mobile phones for race volunteers with relevant contact numbers. The next time I see him he’s in Hobart’s living room welding Ace Awards, the tiny brass medals handed out to participants who complete the course without breaking any race rules.
* * *
Like a lot of places in Humboldt, the town of Ferndale offers creepy and quaint in one fog-shrouded package. There are cute fudge shoppes with sweet little old ladies tending the counter and a second-hand bookstore with shelves of sale books sitting on the sidewalk 24 hours a day. Men with radical beards drive pickup trucks up and down the street. A young woman with a fire-engine red ponytail shoves some sort of package into the back seat of a ’70s Impala and a teenage punk clothed in tattered black saunters past the bookstore. A sprawling cemetery overlooks the town, its century-old crypts and crumbling headstones spread up the side of a hill like a macabre amphitheater until they fade into a fog-filled forest.
Ferndale bills itself as a charming Victorian village, though when juxtaposed with the gray skies that are a given most of the year in Humboldt, these structures’ endless eaves and tiny windows offer many places for the hungry eyes of a mad aunt to peek out from behind attic curtains. The Jim Carrey vehicle The Majestic was filmed here, as were parts of the Ebola thriller Outbreak and TV movie adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot.
Hobart Brown Galleries sits at the intersection of Main and Brown in a two-story red Victorian. Opening the front door sets off a series of bells, but there’s nobody answering their clunky chimes. The floor is carpeted and the walls are graying redwood. It feels like the inside of a barn. Hobart’s gallery hosts paintings by several local artists, but he’s the main draw. His towering works of sculpted brass run down the center of the cavernous bottom story.
Hobart is surrounded by decades of stories, some glowing, others damning. I traveled up here to watch last year’s KSR, but I didn’t get a chance to speak with him then. He seemed to keep a removed presence during the event, emceeing at the starting line and then following along intermittently in a white stretch limousine. When asked about Hobart, people seemed to either be overcome with a vague sense of awe and gratitude or they just sort of snuffled a bit and muttered under their breath. One guy gave me an open letter to Hobart that begins with the line “You are a lying son of a bitch.” Another race participant read a tearful dedication to Hobart thanking him for giving “us this grand stage we call ‘The Kinetic.’ A stage on which we, the artists, play out our dreams and passions.”
* * *
If the downstairs of Hobart Brown Galleries is an art-filled barn, the upstairs is straight hillbilly Addams Family. The walls are hard to make out, as they’re covered almost entirely with artifacts of Hobart’s life. There is a petrified pork chop, discolored with freezer burn. A picture of a middle-aged woman in ’40s-era clothing reads “Mom’s Dad” and underneath, in marker, “Not?” In a huge ’70s-era picture above Hobart’s television set he poses with his pig-hunting spear, a diminutive version of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant. A Vampirella poster is plastered on the ceiling 14 feet above. KSR paraphernalia is everywhere: stickers, posters, ribbons, press clippings, trophies. Three hunting arrows protrude from the wall. A pot-bellied stove sits in the middle of the room.
Hobart welds his sculptures in his living room. Tanks of flammable gas stand behind a furry white sectional couch. Bill Croft and Hobart are sitting and talking when I arrive, and in the middle of our interview, Croft—who radiates his Coast Guard past with a warm vest and a dense beard—fires up a blowtorch and starts melting brass.
The century-old building, Hobart tells me, used to be a brothel. Hobart’s living room, kitchen, workshop and dining room are all one space divided into quarters by half walls and support beams. The rest of the upstairs consists of tiny, windowless bunkrooms often inhabited by his many guests. Hobart also mentions that he used to be a prostitute.
Hobart Brown (in hat)
We set up for an interview on a coffee table covered in all sorts of paper. Many household items—the TV, the books—are labeled with Hobart’s name and a date. One book in the bathroom accuses anyone of having the book in his or her home of being a thief, as the book was taken from Hobart’s toilet. Hobart’s bathroom holds a magazine rack, three toilet paper dispensers and a bookshelf filled with books on astrology, est, world records and Erich Fromm’s school of psychology. Copies of Popular Mechanics abound here, as well as in the living room. A sign that reads “Farting Room” hangs on the wall. The toilet seat is labeled and dated. There is a guest book in the bathroom as well as in the living room and another downstairs in the gallery.
Hobart is a funny little man. Bill Croft calls him a goof. He wears overalls with blue and white stripes. Some sort of KSR medallion rests on his chest, held there by a blue ribbon. His moustache is uneven, the right strands hanging down longer than the left. His right eye is slightly more squinty than his left and his hair is disheveled. His hands are twisted into arthritic gnarls, and he refers to himself as a “cripple.” Hobart has been married twice and has three grown kids—two sons live in Humboldt, a daughter in Pennsylvania. He’s currently single, and most of the men who spend time with him seem to be either divorced or widowed.
Hobart has done hundreds of interviews in the 34 years since he started the race. He keeps a list of all the media outlets that have covered him, his folk art gallery or the KSR and gives me a photocopied index. They range from The Christian Science Monitor, CBS Evening News and Smithsonian to California Highway Patrolman, Senior World and something called “Simon’s Hip Morning Dude Radio Show.” My conversation with him is interrupted several times by reporters calling from the Eureka Times-Standard. Tomorrow he’ll be interviewed for a newsletter in Baltimore. Hobart loves attention.
* * *
The genesis of the KSR is a concise, well-rehearsed tale. In 1969 Hobart the folk art gallery proprietor decided to make some adjustments to his son’s tricycle. The result was “The Pentacycle,” a seven-foot tall, five-wheeled vehicle with two seats. Hobart loved this thing, says he thought he had done his own Sistine Chapel. A friend, Jack Mays, saw the sculpture and decided to make his own. A couple more local tinkers decided they’d like to get in on the fun too. Supposedly it was Mays who came up with the idea to race the sculptures down Main Street in Ferndale—an obscure historical detail that has threatened Kinetic Schism on more than one occasion. On race day Hobart claims 10,000 people showed up, a boast that everyone shares when I ask about the first race. Randall Frost, who curates the Kinetic Sculpture Museum, shows me photos of the event and the figure seems almost believable. Massive crowds lined the streets of Ferndale; spectators crowded on rooftops and there’s at least one film crew on the scene. “People don’t have much to do up here,” says Frost. “And word spreads fast when there’s something going on.”
In a history that is less easily narrated, the race expanded to the current three-day triathlon of the arts. The sculptures became rugged orgies of bicycle engineering and folk art rather than the more delicate originals upon which they were modeled, graceful machines that were powered by rocking chairs hooked to drive trains, vehicles that made their way down the street propelled by the downward velocity of running water.
The thing that helps make Hobart such a big deal up here—his Humboldt County celebrity status springs from a history of events including Halloween bacchanals, wild pig hunting expeditions and confrontations with the chamber of commerce—is his willingness to embellish stories from his objectively festive life to anyone who will listen. His claim that he used to be a prostitute, for example, stems from a particularly promiscuous period in his life when he would ask his partners—women friends from around the way, mostly—to give him a dollar each time he had sex with them. He punctuates all of his stories with the sort of mischievous smile that on a younger man might result in just such a bevy of willing partners. And with the kind of laugh—a soft “coo-hoo-hoo”—appropriate to the sexagenarian manifestation of this persona.
Unexpectedly, Hobart isn’t that good at telling stories about the KSR. Nobody’s that good at telling stories about the race for that matter. It’s like asking Deadheads about Grateful Dead shows and ending up with a chronicle of minutiae that misses the overwhelmingly surreal nature of the event as a whole. Hobart is extremely good at preaching the ideals of the race though, revealing the philosophical implications of its arcane rules and guidelines. He turns every little twist of KSR history into an aphorism making the case that the world will be a better place the more people participate in kinetic sculpture racing. It turns race participants into devotees who schedule their lives around the event. I get the feeling he does this with everyone he talks to since within 30 minutes he’s already telling me how the KSR holds the keys to humanity’s salvation.
“I know what makes an artist,” he tells me. “They like to be noticed. I’ll prove my point. Name one unknown artist that made it. You can’t. So I rest my case.” It’s not clear where he’s going with this, but it’s an introduction to his idea of “the artist” as an archetypal hero figure in the Kinetic Philosophy.
“Here’s the secret: Artists are the reason that we’re gonna save the world,” he says. “They’re gonna give people purpose, improve quality of life. Get people so they don’t want to commit suicide. The way you do that is you give them a sense of purpose. We’re adults having fun so kids will want to get older. It works, doesn’t it.” It’s hard to say if it works, actually. Correlating suicide rates and indexes of depression in rural northern California with the frequency of participation in kinetic sculpture racing is not a project anyone has undertaken just yet. But regardless of the lack of research on the subject, talking to Hobart makes me want to believe that it works.
As evidence of the KSR’s efficacy, Hobart produces a letter nominating him for the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize written by Richard A. Langford, Ph.D., a professor in Humboldt State University’s Department of Psychology. “Such an event as Mr. Brown’s Kinetic Sculpture Race,” writes Langford, “can be an important social support link in the delivery of services to children and young persons struggling with issues of depression, suicidal behavior, and substance abuse. I applaud his efforts.”
* * *
Hobart thinks his mother tried to commit suicide when he was growing up in Hess, Oklahoma. One afternoon she told him they were going to take a nap, and that he should lie down and go to sleep. He got thirsty though, and when he went to the kitchen for some water, he found the gas running. He doesn’t say much more about the incident or his childhood. He was raised as a Baptist, and he’s named after the town in Oklahoma where his parents are from. Over the course of the ’40s and ’50s he received training in aircraft mechanics and worked on cars at a drag strip.
His family moved to Los Angeles in the ’50s. He took some classes at UCLA and attended a lecture by celebrated sculptor Alexander Calder that had a substantial impact on his life. Like Hobart, Calder pursued technical training over art school, and spent the early 1920s putting his engineering degree to work. Calder may be best known for his “stabiles,” massive chunks of angular metal or wood, but he also popularized the idea of kinetic sculpture with what Marcel Duchamp christened “mobiles,” a series of kinetic sculptures—non-vehicular—that were propelled by gears and cranks, or by the movement of air currents. In the agrarian climate of Oklahoma, Hobart felt there was no place for him except as a farmer, fieldworker or mechanic. After relocating to California and hearing Calder speak, he began to consider making art the focus of his life.
He moved to Humboldt in 1961, opening what he claims was the area’s first art gallery in the town of Eureka. He relocated the gallery to Ferndale, into the building where he now lives, in 1962. Most of Hobart’s non-kinetic sculptures on display in his gallery belie his eccentricity. “Bear Necessity” is a diorama of a cowboy staring at a bear that stands between him and his rifle. “The Horse” is a nearly life-size bucking bronco with an $18,500 price tag. “Duck for Dinner” is a small waterfowl ducking beneath copper rings—signifying ripples—for a morsel.
The centerpiece of Hobart’s sculptural catalog is a chunk of copper at least a dozen feet tall called “The Caves of Mercury.” It comes with its own allegorical description, handily photocopied and available at a nearby table. “The Caves” depicts a series of mountains inhabited by winged creatures known as Tranzoids. A rickety network of tiny scaffolding and ladders winds around the copper mass, stopping off at ledges and caves that depict various life stages and their accompanying challenges: Descend the ladder past the cave of early death, cross the dangerous bridge of adolescence and you arrive at the cave of rejection. Make it through there and you find early rewards. Resist those and there are more ladders and caves to endure until you end up naked in the cave of self-realization and finally cross the gateway of eternal wisdom. Hobart spends a lot of time thinking about what makes a good life, and how making it through difficult times and solving problems results in an immense sense of fulfillment.
* * *
The biggest problem in Hobart’s life right now is Bill Neill, a plumber from Oakland. Like a lot of the men involved in the race, he’s a slightly plump middle-aged-looking guy with a goatee and a ponytail. He’s been involved with the KSR for over 20 years. And he knows that Hobart hates him. So it’s kind of a surprise when he walks into Hobart’s living room in the middle of the interview. Hobart and Neill haven’t seen each other in two years; they each accuse the other being a lying thief and it seems their last communication happened through Neill’s lawyer. Hobart turns off the charm and becomes cold and distant. Neill is visibly nervous—his voice wavers and he’s jumpy. He tells Hobart he’s here to make peace. Hobart replies with a curt “No way.”
“I really do want to come up here and bury the hatchet. Not just because of the race but because…” Neill takes a deep breath, “I’ve settled down. It’s been a long time. My dad passing away and all that stuff was not, not good for me.”
“I’m sorry that happened to you, but you wrote your own script. I’m sorry Bill.”
“Okay. All right. I just wanted to come up here and do it personally. I was going to do it on the phone, way before the race, but…”
Hobart cuts him off again. “Why don’t you put that money in the race? All that money you got. You’re the only one to ever make money on this race.”
“That’s what I didn’t want to get into.”
Hobart sits on the edge of the couch staring off into space while Neill talks to his back. I have no idea what’s going on, but Hobart has changed completely. Neill tells Hobart he’s going to be emceeing the race with someone named the Burlyman, and Hobart tells him he won’t come to any event where Neill is scheduled to make an appearance. Neill offers to step off the stage whenever Hobart wants to speak, but Hobart still refuses.
“You’ve never seen me get this angry before,” says Hobart, “but I got hurt worse than I’ve ever been hurt before. I included and shared my life with you completely.”
Neill offers to talk to Hobart later of if he wants, and then leaves.
“He got more money out of the race than anybody,” Hobart tells me as Neill retreats down the stairs. “He made me close the [KSR] museum and he waited until I got to Australia before he did it. He got something like $90,000 out of something we owned together. And he didn’t hurt me, because I’m okay. But he claimed that I was a thief. He claimed all kinds of things. So he would love to come back and have everything go back to normal so he can be a hero again. But I’m not giving him that option.”
* * *
The Kinetic Sculpture Race is fraught with petty resentments, philosophical schisms and clan warfare that most participants don’t talk about right away. Monkey is this big dopey-looking guy with sandy hair, thick glasses and a really weird looking truck. When I came up here in 2002 for my first KSR he opened the whole thing up.
On the second night of the KSR, it’s a tradition for the participants to camp at a remote beach north of Ferndale known as Crab Park. They gather together for bonfires, fireworks and inebriated revelry. This is where the real shit goes down when it comes to the KSR, as good a reason to return each year as sweating inside some ridiculous costume while pedaling a thousand pounds of metal, plastic and papier-maiche over sand dunes. The beach is gray and covered with old pieces of driftwood that people drag over to a growing stack of pallets and logs. Small groups on the outskirts set up tents around particularly large pieces of wood that they’ve set alight where they lay half-buried in the sand. This place is officially closed to everyone but KSR participants, but given that it’s a bunch of hippies and folk artists, it was safe to assume when I came up here last year that the crowd would not be real heavy-handed about following the rules.
Monkey didn’t think anybody at Crab Park knew his real name, and he wasn’t about to tell me. He did tell me that what I mistook for some kind of decrepit, low-slung pickup truck was actually a 1964 Oldsmobile sedan with 350,000 miles on it. He and a friend tore the back half off and made the back seat and trunk area into a truck bed. The most important thing in the bed was an ice chest stocked with beverages. After that, the generator, something called a wire feed welder, a compressor and a stolen stop sign. In the front seat a CB radio crackled with squelchy chatter.
Monkey serves as the head of the pit crew for Area 51, who I will soon learn are basically the Hell’s Angels of the race. He had equipment for their rig—the “Devil Fish,” a raggedy, fire-red barracuda of a kinetic sculpture piloted by two heavy-set women—in the bed as well. Monkey helps everybody out with their machines, and on that night there was a constant flow of people cruising by to borrow tools. Monkey is one of those guys who know how to make things work using stuff that you find in the very back of a junkyard: the sort of person who could probably win custom car contests if he gave a shit about things like that. Instead, he follows the West Coast KSR circuit, which includes lesser events in Ventura, California; Corvallis, Oregon; and Port Townsend, Washington.
He’s also the guy who wrote the open letter to Hobart that begins with: “You are a lying son of a bitch.” I received my own copy of his letter after I talked to Monkey about the old days of the race, back when it was a “drunken, adults-only” kind of thing, the kind of event where bonfires get out of control and the whole beach ends up on fire. Not the most responsible, eco-friendly happening, but a whole lot of fun.
The circumstances surrounding Monkey’s letter were sort of unclear, but he basically accused Hobart of being Hobart, of nosing around in all aspects of the race and playing his role as “Glorious Founder” to the hilt. A key component of race fun comes from the bribes all the teams carry with them. These are stickers, trading cards and little wacky notes that people who have broken a rule—pushing their rig in a no-push zone, not having all the requisite equipment on board, deviating from the race course—can slip to judges in an effort to avoid penalties. Follow the rules to the letter and you get an Ace Award. In his letter Monkey attacked Hobart for letting the bribes get out of hand, of diluting what he called the “elite corps” of those who truthfully Aced the course. Monkey admitted that the race is pretty much what he does year round, and that he’s not a very diplomatic person. He takes his anarchic all-terrain art races seriously, and he’s not alone.
Al Krauss, an acquaintance of Monkey’s, split off from the race several years ago with a separate set of complaints—though the idea that “it’s just become a parade” is a recurring gripe—to start his own Extreme Kinetic. The participants travel what Krauss refers to as the “historic” race course, a reference to geographic landmarks all but lost on those who don’t have several decades of races under their belt. It’s still 38 miles long, but more rigorous in that it’s a one-day event. Krauss’s project is in part a response to more of the KSR’s eccentric rules. The winner of the Extreme Kinetic is the vehicle that crosses the finish line first, with a Grand Champion Award given to the vehicle with the best combination of speed, engineering and art. In years past, Krauss has persuaded as many as three people to compete in his event. He’s also ridden the course alone just to make his point. This year he’s a consultant to a team of Eureka high school students competing in their first KSR with a machine called “Revenge of the Spotted Owls.”
The scoring criteria for the Extreme Kinetic are remarkably conservative when compared to the complex matrix of awards associated with the KSR. Rather than have a participant award, all non-winning teams receive a Loser Award, in the form of an orange ribbon. The first vehicle to break down in the race wins the Golden Dinosaur Award, which is a gilded plastic Tyrannosaurus Rex. There are trophies for top speed, best design and best engineering, as well as worst maritime disaster, but the biggest prize is the Mediocre Award. “The participant is more important than the winner,” says Hobart. “The winner is one of the extremes. But the mediocre—which is the middle of the pack—that’s the best example of what you’re doing. It always is, always will be. The best part of a watermelon is in the middle. I rest my case.”
The winner of last year’s Mediocre Award was team Area 51. They received a trophy and a night at the Angelina Inn, a hotel and restaurant in Ferndale. Hobart sincerely winces when he recalls their bar tab.
KSR quarrels spring up even when Hobart’s not involved. Monkey’s assessment of the 2002 field of entries was dismissive at best: A team of engineering students from the University of California at Santa Barbara were good designers, but “didn’t know how to work with their hands.” Nevertheless, they were the only team to win any kudos from the dour pit commander. In particular he was out to counter the awe I expressed at “Tide Fools”—an incarnation of the psychedelic lobster that would reappear in 2003 as “Surf & Turf”—and “Runaway Rhino,” an equally large black rhinoceros sponsored by Yakima, the renown bicycle component manufacturer. These machines—as well as a flying pink elephant—were designed and piloted by the unequivocal darlings of the kinetic sculpture racing world and the proprietors of a facility known as Kinetic Labs: Duane Flatmo, Ken Beidleman and June Moxon. Hobart may be the Glorious Founder, but these three are behind the glorious designs that keep spectators coming back year after year. They’ve gone on to appear on television programs such as TLC’s “Junkyard Wars,” and generated a fair amount of media coverage when Moxon and her partner Beidleman decided to pilot one of their vehicles across the continental U.S.
Tide Fools, on the road.
Duane Flatmo’s “Tide Fools” is a breathtaking piece of all-terrain art. The lobster’s claws move up and down, clenching at the air. When spectators are near someone cries “Animation!” and each pilot grasps pulleys or levers that make the crustacean’s skin come to life—the creature from the Black Lagoon pops up from a hiding place, antennae bristle, and a rotating octopus twirls around while its eyes bug out.
Beidleman and his “Runaway Rhino” team pilot a bicycle engineer’s wet dream of crisp, clean gears and drive trains clustered around a skeleton of chromoly tubing, all of it hidden underneath the black plates of the rhinoceros. Their team is outfitted in comically oversized safari gear complete with huge foam rifles, bush helmets and artificial hillbilly teeth. Moxon’s fluffy pink elephant is not quite as striking as the other two machines, but remarkable if only for the acreage of plush material that covers its hide.
The trick, Monkey tells me, is that they re-enter the same machines each year but with slight alterations. Which is somewhat understandable. NASCAR racers don’t rebuild their stock cars before each Daytona 500, and while float designers might do some retrofitting before the Rose Parade, they don’t have to take their untested vehicle through the sand dunes leading up to spectator-favorite obstacle Dead Man’s Drop. Monkey’s contempt represented a deeper resentment quietly echoed by a few other racers: The Kinetic Labs folks are relatively well-funded professional artists and bicycle engineers. Monkey and Area 51 work as seasonally-employed security guards, farmers or live off of government assistance. Kinetic Labs dominates the KSR by loaning out their dynasty of award-winning machines and offering consultation to newcomers. The fantastic entries that spring forth from their warehouse complex in Arcata also help bring in sponsorship dollars. Moxon’s entry in the 2003 race—a 17-foot-long flying horse called “Bridal Trail”—is a fully animated, 216-gear contraption that was originally constructed in January of 2000 with a $53,000 grant from Mumm Cuve Champagne. Monkey built his most recent entry from scratch by scraping together $500 and a borrowed drive train. DIY machines have their merits, but 2,000-pound psychedelic lobsters do tend to please a crowd.
* * *
The sign above the Kinetic Labs warehouse in Arcata is festooned with hot-rod flames. Dragons, wart hogs, dogs and dinosaurs hang from the ceiling. On the shop floor grease-covered men with stubble and women in work smocks with sawdust in their hair labor on kinetic sculptures. Saws buzz, blowtorches glow green and spectators cluster around several of the surreal machines that have been moved into the parking lot. A lot of people are just wandering around gawking; mostly middle-aged dudes with facial hair, tie-dye shirts and handfuls of Pabst Blue Ribbon or Miller Genuine Draft. True to Humboldt stereotypes, a lungful of pot smoke drifts through the milling bystanders. An unkempt group of young men are taking turns tooling around on a spazzy little tricycle that one of the tie-dyed moustache-guys tells me is called a “Trilobike.” The rider sits low to the ground between two large wheels and grips handles that control a swiveling smaller wheel behind the seat. This allows one to drive around in very fast, very small circles. Combine with beer and/or pot and you’ve easily got an afternoon’s worth of horribly dizzy fun. One hairy youth enthuses about the quality of drugs people must be taking here in order to construct such a delightful array of vehicles, while two others carry on in an unidentified language. Other passersby are drafted into painting “Runaway Rhino”‘s black armor white. This year the machine has been re-christened as “Al, the Albino Rhino.”
June Moxon’s team—”Bridal Trail”—takes its name from the party of bridesmaids that serve as her pit crew. Moxon pilots the machine along with a woman named Acacia, who will be married on the second night of the race by Hobart Brown to Scott, one of “Surf & Turf”‘s six pilots. The team of bridesmaids will pass the course in wedding dresses as well as towering blue Marge Simpson wigs. They’ve choreographed a tap-dance routine to the ’50s girl-group hit “Chapel of Love.” At the wedding, an oversized gag-ring will be delivered by someone dressed in a small bear suit. The “ring bear,” naturally.
It’s a lot to take, but Moxon is a gas to talk with, smiling constantly and managing to sneak wry asides and jokes into even the most serious of conversations. As for Monkey’s words from last year about the success of the Kinetic Labs machines, she giggles as she does at everything. “It’s no fun to be the one sitting at home cranky at everybody else,” she says. “The only time you really lose is when you don’t do the race, and you just whine about it.”
She’s been friends with both Hobart and Bill Neill for years—joining them for Halloween parties, pig-hunts, canoe trips, even living with Hobart for awhile—and offers a similarly pragmatic take on their falling-out: “It’s just sad, they had been friends for so long. Bill took care of Hobart for a really long time. He made things easier for Hobart. Bill has been an amazing asset to the race. We love him dearly. This is one big family and families have fights. And they have disagreements and financial problems. It’s sad though because Hobart’s in bad health. Pain changes people,” she says. “The person I used to laugh with all the time is not all there now. I don’t mean it in a bad way. You just can’t be.”
Neill is also here at the Kinetic Labs, painting the image of a Kinetic Chicken on this year’s Mediocre Award: an orange, 1979 Ford Pinto with plaid upholstery. He won’t tell me how much he paid for it, only that he bought it for the race. Neill has been master of ceremonies for the KSR for the past 15 years and he is dressed appropriately. The red band on his straw hat matches his red velvet vest. A necklace of heavy metal beads hangs from his neck and he sports a huge piece of turquoise in place of a watch. He is decidedly more confident here, among friends, than during the awkward confrontation in Ferndale the day before. He pulls a photo album from the back seat of the Pinto and shows me pictures of him posing with topless women at biker rallies and nude women at Burning Man. Neill seems like he’s basically a civilian biker with a way with tools. He’s a plumber by trade, and he’s also got pictures of motorcycles he’s built along with “hatchet-and-torch jobs” where he’s turned old Mustangs into convertibles. “I always manage to go where the naked women are,” he says paging through snapshots of Playboy Bunnies at wet T-shirt contests. These are interrupted by pictures of Neill hanging out with Hobart and company in his Ferndale home, of Neill and Hobart with former California governor Pete Wilson at the KSR, Neill and Hobart posing next to earthquake damage in Ferndale circa 1982.
Twenty-five years of friendship between the two men have been lost to poor bookkeeping and miscommunication. Hobart gets people excited about the KSR gospel, and Neill was no exception when they first met in 1977. Unlike the majority of the participants though, Neill’s enthusiasm translated into a financial investment in the race itself. That’s where things get kind of confusing.
In 1988, Neill and Hobart purchased a building together to house a museum of KSR paraphernalia. Neill also invested in the KSR by purchasing stock in the “Kinetic Corporation,” an entity that defies easy explanation. Trouble began brewing as Neill gradually became unhappy with the real estate portion of his investment. The property wasn’t making any money—admission to the museum consists of a voluntary donation—and he wanted to sell the building. Around the same time Hobart decided to sell the rights to the KSR to Bill Croft and the Humboldt Kinetic Association for $80,000, to be paid in $1000 monthly installments. Croft tells me the HKA basically asked Hobart what he owed in KSR-related debt and settled on that amount as the price. Hobart was happy, but mostly due to reassurances that the sale was based on promises to stay true to his version of Kinetic Philosophy: three-day race, wacky awards, accolades to the mediocre, crusade against suicide, adults having fun so kids will want to get older.
Neill was not so happy with this arrangement. Hobart allegedly neglected to inform Neill—the biggest stockholder in the Kinetic Corporation—that the deal was going down. Hobart felt justified collecting the money from the sale of the rights due to the considerable debts he had amassed over years of basically operating the race with his own credit cards. Neill claims that when he bought into Kinetic Corp. there was no obligation to take over Hobart’s debts since those expenses were not channeled through the corporation in the first place. Therefore when the sale of the building went through, Neill kept funds sufficient to cover the loss he took when Hobart sold the rights. Neill says Hobart ripped him off by selling the rights to the race. Hobart maintains that Neill ripped him off when he kept the bulk of the money from the sale of the KSR museum building. Neill now wants to bury the hatchet and has returned to the KSR as an emcee, while Hobart remains unwilling to “validate Bill’s way of life,” essentially boycotting his own race.
All of this—the amount of money changing hands under the guise of a corporation and the up-front eccentricity of the principals involved—prompts an obvious question: Did it occur to anybody to hire an accountant? Neill tells me that Hobart hired Arthur Anderson, laughs and then becomes exasperated.
“No,” says Neill. “You know what he used? A cardboard box and he put receipts in it sometimes. I love that.”
It’s a fiscal fiasco that seems to stem directly from Hobart’s charisma. The wonder of his power is compounded with the knowledge that this has all happened before with different individuals and non-profit groups who have been involved with the administrative side of the race. An article in the May 20, 1999 edition of the Arcata-based newspaper North Coast Journal details another confounding financial conflict between Hobart and the Kinetic Arts Foundation, an organization similar to the HKA that attempted to bring organization and structure to the race.
Within 15 minutes of meeting Hobart he told me what an awful businessperson he is, using quotes that pop up verbatim in other KSR profiles that have been written over the last 30 years. “I bought my building for $10,000,” he tells me of his gallery in Ferndale, “and I only owe $45,000 on it now. I think that’s pretty good.” And yet people are willing to embark on vague but expensive business ventures with Hobart, knowing full-well—because he tells them!—that he lives on financial assistance, files his multi-thousand-dollar credit card receipts in a cardboard box and proudly mis-manages his real estate investments. It’s baffling. It’s more like faith than enthusiasm, and further evidence that the ranks of the KSR are filled with those who—to paraphrase Denis Johnson’s words from Already Dead—arrive here in Humboldt in search of the saving fellowship of just such an obscure church.
In recent years Hobart has been spending winters in Australia. He first traveled there in 1979 as an artist-in-residence at Scotch College in Melbourne, but he’s returned since to start a kinetic sculpture race at the invitation of the Perth Rotary Club. He’s helped start other races across the U.S. and also in Poland. But it seems that Australia and New Zealand have some of the highest suicide rates in the world, and he is convinced that he can do something about that.
* * *
The Area 51 crew’s garage is an actual garage behind a house in a quiet Eureka neighborhood. A small army of large dogs goes berserk in the backyard when I ring the door bell, and a gruff-looking character in a “Veterans For Peace” mesh baseball cap steps down from a rusty pickup truck and asks if he can help me with anything. The dogs calm down as Beth Dunlap walks to the gate and invites me and Rainbow—the guy from the truck—to join her amid the roiling sea of canines. Tennis balls are everywhere, there’s some kind of vintage car up on blocks in a back corner of the yard and an oxygen tank gone crusty with rust hangs from a solitary tree as a sort of lawn decoration.
I spent a fair amount of time with the Area 51 team at last year’s race—they took me into their camp at Crab Park and generously shared homebrewed liquor and joints with me, along with all sorts of KSR stories about malfunctioning drive trains, slow-motion wrecks and acid-fried camp-outs. The team has been competing in the race for over a decade and they’ve earned a reputation as a hard-partying confederation of outlaws and misfits in a field full of outlaws and misfits. Dunlap has been piloting the machine for the last three years and also serves as Area 51’s unofficial spokesperson. Monkey—the pit crew boss who offered me that first glimpse of KSR schism at last year’s race—is inside the house laid up with bronchitis. People here are bustling around since James Taylor—one of several Area 51 patriarchs and the ringleader of last year’s beachfront debauchery—is on the way home from the Veterans Administration hospital. It’s his first visit home since having one of his legs amputated due to “poor circulation.” The team is undaunted and excited about the return of the man they now call “Zippy,” and promise me that while he won’t be joining the festivities at Crab Park he will be at the starting line tomorrow morning.
The women of Area 51 are large and tie-dyed and lovely, all smiling and cussing and laughing as they put the finishing touches on their entry in the 2003 race, “The Cosmic Wiener.” Dunlap introduces herself as Deth Bunlap, Beth’s evil twin sister and launches into their machine’s half-rehearsed back-story, something about a Wiener In Space Program (WISP). Sewing machines are running as the foam head of a dachshund is wrapped with star-studded fabric. The machine’s body is simple but effective—two recumbent bicycles frames welded together so effectively that they’ve made it through 15 races—and its decorations are sloppy and fun. The wiener dog has a lolling tongue that flaps in the breeze, ringed planets embroidered on its ears and a tiny alien peeking out of its anus. Everything is paid for from the sales of homemade Area 51 tie-dyes and with the assistance of sponsors including Louise & The Rock & Roll Doctor, Rabid Aqua-Bat, Al’s Diner and Sister Mary Vicodin.
“This is people with way too much time on their hands,” says Dunlap. “Either that or they’re shirking the stuff they’re supposed to be doing. It takes us all year long to catch up with our real lives. Everybody’s really pissed at us by the time race time really happens and they don’t want to hear about it anymore.” The extended Area 51 family encompasses 15-20 people, many of whom work together doing security for concerts and festivals. They get together on Sundays throughout the year, working on the machine intensely for months before the race.
Family metaphors abound when talking about the KSR, but Dunlap uses the more apt comparison of a company of harlequins. “It’s wonderful to see theater go out into the real world,” she says. “It lets everybody step outside of their comfort zone, their normal reality into . . .well . . . we can make anything possible! It’s just really cool.” Allusions to Christopher Guest’s Waiting For Guffman would be easy enough, though the earnest passion that defines so much of the KSR drama easily eclipses the improvisational histrionics of Guest’s cast. I duck out before James arrives home but can’t help but wonder how much the scene at Crab Park this year might suffer for his absence.
* * *
The irony of Kinetic Sculpture Racing—with its mythological origin story, bitter schisms, financial intrigue and meticulously engineered marvels of mobile folk art—is that the race itself is incredibly tedious.
The race starts in Arcata, home of Humboldt State University and the birthplace of radical environmentalist organization Earth First!. The town of 16,000 people is a Mecca for hippies and hobos: there are always a few scruffy travelers on the Arcata Plaza, a grassy square in the center of downtown. On 2003’s race day—an uncharacteristically sunny Saturday morning—there are literally thousands of people milling around. Hippie parents with feral children and environmentalist yuppies with fancy backpacks and Subaru Outbacks join standard Humboldt-variety cranks to ogle at the lysergic gathering of jalopies. One woman with an especially remarkable amount of fabric and beads in her distressed hair sits tossing flowers back and forth with her topless boyfriend, a smiling, ruddy-faced woodsman-type with spastic dreadlocks. Another woman in a bikini does the splits on the shoulders of two friends. Nearly half of the gathered crowd is either juggling or hacky-sacking. A marching band bearing battered, bent and dented brass plays Beatles songs. They’re clad in tie-dyed dresses, blue camouflage and one member is wearing a cape. They compete with an all-woman kazoo marching band that is dressed entirely in red.
Neill stands on stage with the Burlyman, both reveling in their role as showmen. The machines go through brake tests administered by men in clown suits, French military uniforms and judicial robes. Hobart is nowhere to be seen. At one point the “Albino Rhino” almost runs down a race official, an incident that prompts Neill and Burlyman to shout “pan-DUH-monium!” Jokes about the “divots” left in the ground where this official’s ass impacted are never-ending. The Dastardly Razooly, the official race villain, joins Neill and Burlyman on the stage. Considering so many of the KSR figures stay in character year round, it comes as little surprise that the black-masked Razooly plays hell-raiser offstage too. He owns the Tip-Top Club, a strip club south of Eureka. He had a difficult time obtaining permits for the establishment initially, so he opened it as an RV dealership where half-nude female sales associates peddled Matchbox-car-sized Winnebagos. He also serves as a perpetual Eureka mayoral candidate, running on a Libertarian Party platform. Anywhere else in the country and he’d be just another crackpot—note: his legal name is T. Great Razooly—but considering that this is Jefferson State country, the “Mayor’s Office” sign he hangs on the door of his office at his club may come in handy some day.
The entire field of entrants—some 30 or 40 machines—circle the square in anticipation of the air raid siren that signifies the start of the race. It sounds around noon and they head for the Manila Dunes. The town of Manila, pop. 1,000, is located on Route 255 just outside of Arcata where it seems like everyone lives in a sand-blown clapboard house. Salt-corroded automobiles are parked next to screened-in porches crowded with bicycles, plants and other detritus. The Manila Dunes are a protected area of coastline with strange grasses crawling over their surface. Signs dot the landscape identifying certain types of flora, beseeching visitors to stay on the trail so as not to damage the delicate habitat.
On arrival in Manila, racers gather in the parking lot of the Manila Community Center, a low-lying complex of buildings that host pre-school classes during the day and avant-garde noise bands by night. Teams enhance their road wheels with large, flat treads to increase the surface area and help with traction in the deep sand.
Each team leaves the parking lot alone to face the dunes, at which point they begin moving even more slowly. Wheels spin and kick sand, digging deeper into the dune system while the racers sit and sweat. Their slow pace is made painfully evident by the families, loaded down with picnic and beach gear, who stride rapidly past the struggling vehicles. One woman is hollering at her children and aggressively pushing yarrow—an herb found growing throughout the area—to both racers and spectators: “Here. Put this in your mouth. It will keep your saliva glands working and keep you hydrated. Put it in your mouth.” Once I’m on the beach there’s not much to do but plop down in the sand and watch the slow parade as I fall asleep.
After waking up sunburned, I walk back through the dunes to my car and drive up the 255 to Dead Man’s Drop. All of the KSR is characterized by gleeful hyperbole, but the Drop is actually kind of exciting. A sand dune declines at something like a 70-degree angle to a tree-shaded dirt road. One sculpture—the “Albino Rhino”—navigates the hill without assistance, shooting straight down and into the trees. It’s quite a rush to watch. But crew members hold on to the sides of most of the sculptures, slowing their descent. It’s safe, yes, but hardly exciting: a good crash or two would really liven things up, especially given the mock-fear teams indulge in when speaking of the race’s perils. Still, there are several hundred people gathered here to watch, along with heavily tattooed EMTs—Kinetic Medics—on standby. There are also many mosquitoes and shrieking children who take turns burying each other in the sand. I watch for a good hour or so, and then walk back to my car, passing as I go each sculpture I had just witnessed negotiating the Drop. Pit teams await the machines back out on the paved road, bringing the first day of the race to a close.
* * *
Most of the second day is closed to the public as the machines make their way south on the shoulder of the 101 freeway. The mundanity of the day’s course is offset by the promise of partying at Crab Park. Tonight there will be a lovingly absurd wedding ceremony, and afterwards a reception replete with cake and wine, fire dancers and fireworks. The safari hunters of the “Albino Rhino” will blast bottle rockets out over the ocean from the barrels of their comedy-sized foam rifles. After the wedding dies down though, most teams will retreat in small groups for quiet conversation. Area 51 isn’t here—they’re camping at their garage in Eureka to be with their recently hospitalized patriarch—and the scene is far more subdued for their absence.
I’d discovered the Kinetic Sculpture Race several years back while on a Humboldt County camping trip. After visiting the parks in the northern part of the county, my girlfriend and I stopped off in Ferndale, ending up at the KSR museum. A year later I dragged an old friend from Berkeley back for the race. After watching two days of the event, we crashed the racers’ party at Crab Park, looking to confirm rumors of debauchery. The rumors were confirmed.
Crab Park sits on the edge of Seven Mile Slough, a stretch of muddy beach found by exiting the 101 in the tiny dairy-farming town of Loleta and traveling between decrepit barns and melancholy fields on Cannibal Island Road. The racers set up camp around their machines. Pit crews make repairs; cooks break out Tupperware, hot dogs and organic salads. We set up our tent somewhat tentatively on the edge of the campsite, but our neighbors—an extended family of Kinko’s employees racing in a snail-shaped machine called “S Car Go”—insisted that we join them for supper. Soon, I was off to find some of the people that pitmaster Monkey thought would have some interesting things to say.
After passing around a pipe full of pot and an old water bottle full of a homemade blend of pink-hued alcohol called “corpuscle,” Rob Dog and Jim quickly identified themselves as just the sort of KSR people I wanted to talk to. Rob hails from a tiny town in the mountains of California’s northwest corner, Del Norte County. He grew up listening to the race on the radio—local bluegrass station KHUM broadcasts full coverage every year, their reporters embellishing the smallest of events into breathless improvisational theater—and made it down to Humboldt to participate in 1987. He and Jim have raced vehicles, worked as race officials and negotiated with gun-toting farmers in order to gain access to the beloved Slippery Slimy Slope, a backwoods bog that must be navigated by racers on the final day of competition. Their favorite stories involved race officials showing up at this particular farmer’s house without the requisite bribe—a case of Budweiser and a jug of cheap wine— and being met with drawn firearms.
They led me back to the Area 51 camp and introduced me to James Taylor, the Area 51 patriarch. Taylor was a gray-haired, mustachioed bear wearing a leather vest adorned with Grateful Dead and biker pins and a top hat decorated with hot-rod flames. He greeted me with a headlock and noogies, and held me in that position while he relayed his family history. He eventually released me and passed the bottle of “fine Jamaican sipping rum” from which he’d already had a tipple or two.
Taylor told me he was born in to circus life in 1949. His mother was the Headless Woman and his godmother was the Snake Lady. He’s wasn’t the only Vietnam veteran in the small circle of friends that had gathered at the tailgate of his Dodge pickup truck, so there were knowing nods when he discussed his frustration with being in a warzone during the Fourth of July on top of some very serious explosives and being unable to use them to celebratory effect. Area 51 helped contribute to the impressive fireworks that were exploding in the sky above an absolutely raging bonfire. The entire camp erupted in a chorus of howling, and a tiny poodle—its fur dyed with pink and fluorescent green polka dots—came scurrying out of the darkness and jumped into James’ lap. Due in no small part to the kif-dusted joints that were making their way through the group, everyone erupted in hysterical laughter.
Strains of conversation floated across the path I stumbled down on the way back to my tent later that night—people talked politics, bemoaned overly toasted marshmallows and played folk songs on guitars. Participants knew each other from years past or from the day’s course, and they came calling on far-flung encampments bearing inebriants or team-themed bribes. A couple of guys from Oregon representing team “#2″—a giant toilet whose pilot wore a hat fashioned to resemble a fly-covered turd—handed out small buttons made of poop-colored foam. Under the glare of work lights others toiled until long past midnight, the faint smell of acetylene torches mixing with the briny tang of the nearby ocean. The race is a slow, strange and grueling thing, but I was beginning to understand why people kept coming back.
* * *
The third and final day of the 2003 race is relatively short, but difficult. First, the machines must paddle their way across a mile of open water—slightly dangerous, but well-supervised by the Coast Guard. Following the water crossing, racers make their way overland to Ferndale. The Slippery Slimy Slope is not included this year, though I’m not sure why. The whole thing looked miserable last year. Miles out into the woods, racers harnessed their entire teams to their machines like mules. They hauled the heavy contraptions through a mosquito-plagued mud bog, their legs sunk up to the knee in a noxious mixture of water, dirt and—given the land’s everyday use as pasture—cattle manure. This year, due to a vague map, flooded areas and my own ignorance of the gravel roads linking dairy farms north of Ferndale, I miss the backwoods section and the Captain Morgan’s Slew obstacle that replaces Slippery Slimy Slope.
It mustn’t have been too difficult though, as machines begin rolling across the finish line in Ferndale around lunchtime. Neill and Burlyman both hold forth on a stage set up in front of Hobart Galleries, and I think I spy the Glorious Founder peeking from his upstairs windows. They re-hash the jokes of the starting line—the race official that was knocked down by the “Albino Rhino” remains a favorite and the divots his ass left in the pavement come up often—and Burlyman growls “pan-DUH-monium” every time another sculpture crawls over the finish line. The theatrical elements of the race are in full effect when, for the benefit of the camera crew recording the race for a television program called Weird Wheels, the racers re-enact the finish line as a mad dash for the trophy, rather than the leisurely downhill coast that it is. The “Mullet Bullet”—a gold Camaro whose pilots wear long mullet wigs and blast KISS tunes from a hidden boom box—goes over very well with the crowd. The “Two Ton Trike” recalls past races: it’s a vintage tricycle that stands close to 15-feet tall. A huge quad-cycle named “Wet Paint”—huge meaning wheels with spokes that brush the eaves of second-story windows—rolls by with a bagpiper blaring victory hymns from its upper platform. “Pan-DUH-monium!”
* * *
The KSR awards dinner is held at the Humboldt County Fairgrounds in Ferndale. A KSR merchandise table with T-shirts, key chains and tiny wooden Kinetic Chickens is set up in the entryway. Three or four hundred people are gathered here to eat spaghetti and celebrate: race teams, their friends and families as well as the dozens of volunteers who work with Bill Croft and the Humboldt Kinetic Association. In a race filled with puns (as-yet-unmentioned examples include the “Axles of Evil” and “Turtle Recall” teams and a Spectator Award that is a potato covered in specks) the final authority on all KSR award issues is a character named Judge Mental Case.
This hybrid of double-entendre and pun makes me dizzy. I sit alone at the back of the white-walled, fluorescent-lit hall waiting for everything to wind down until Rob Dog spies me on my own and insists that I join him and the rest of the Area 51 up near the stage. Team patriarch Taylor is here and I say hello briefly, but the rowdy biker vet of last year is faded on the meds blunting the pain of his recent leg amputation. Area 51 is just as raucous and excited though. They were the first team to break down in the race and will be taking home the coveted Golden Dinosaur Award.
The race has four categories of winners—speed, engineering, art and miscellaneous awards—and a grand champion. Kinetic Lab master mechanic Ken Beidleman and his “Albino Rhino” team take home the Grand Champion Award. They also receive accolades from most of the other winning teams, half of whom seems to have used machines either borrowed from Kinetic Labs or engineered there with Beidleman’s assistance. Appropriately, I hadn’t yet seen the overall winner in the speed category, a one-man machine known as “Rocket Boy.” The pilots of “Mullet Bullet”—looking like roadies for Judas Priest—whoop it up when their first place Art Award is announced, tossing devil horns in the air and eliciting a standing ovation from the crowd. “We just wanted to give something back to the fans,” they say. The Engineering Award goes to a guy named Melvin, by all accounts the racer with the most KSRs under his belt. The bridesmaids from Moxon’s “Bridal Trail” win Best Pit Crew, and in lieu of an acceptance speech launch into their tap-music routine while singing “Chapel of Love.” The Mediocre Award—the orange Pinto Neill purchased for the race—goes to “Rolli Polli,” a beetle-shaped vehicle piloted, ironically, by non-licensed students from Sunny Brae Middle School.
The festivities wind down like a family reunion. “This is the one time of the year I get to see all these people,” one racer tells me in a parking lot full of sweaty, exhausted people exchanging tearful goodbyes. Hobart never shows, which seems sad and uncharacteristically spiteful given the vaunted status he holds with all racers, even those whom he’s fallen out with. Kind words are said of him on the microphone, punctuated by Neill pulling open his shirt to reveal a T-shirt proclaiming his membership in the club of KSR pariahs. Extreme Kinetic founder Al Krauss has one, and apparently so does Monkey. It reads “Hobart Hates Me!” and wins hearty guffaws from those friends of Hobart and Neill’s who are privy to the inside world of KSR politics.
* * *
There’s already one book about Hobart’s life and the KSR, but it’s currently out of print. The day after the awards dinner Hobart asks me to write the next one, his first official biography. He’s already got a title picked out—Recipe For An Artist—and is supposedly chummy with an Australian publisher for whom he may or may not be working on a comic book about a wheelchair-bound superhero tentatively entitled Wheeled Angels. The book that Hobart published in 1990 is just called Kinetic Sculpture Racing. The first 200 pages are a guide to starting your own KSR and they read like an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Manual complete with scoring sidebars, special notes to judges and detailed illustrations of the hardware racers will need in a wide variety of environmental conditions. The second half is an oral history of Hobart’s life: His biographer gave him questions, a cassette recorder and transcribed the answers into the large-format paperback that sits on my lap.
I’ve heard Hobart happily outline his lack of financial skills. I spent the last week talking to people about how difficult Hobart is when you go into business with him. I witnessed the painful real-time breakdown of his friendship with Neill. Prior to this morning’s visit with Hobart, I called Bill Croft for a follow-up interview, only to find out from a member of the HKA board of directors that he’s resigned as race director, and that he’s so fed up with running the KSR that he’s left town. Yet I still consider Hobart’s offer of business partnership, which includes room and board. He goes on to tell me about the fallout he had with the author of Kinetic Sculpture Race, the book’s distributors and local booksellers, and I still spend the next few days throwing together a preliminary book proposal. Hobart’s not pushy at any point in our conversation—he gives me plenty of opportunities to back out—but it’s not until a month of deliberating and transcribing interviews with his long list of previous business partners that I call him and respectfully decline. Hobart doesn’t miss a beat and tells me he’s already got somebody else lined up for the job.
* * *
Jefferson State secessionists no longer set up barricades and hand out copies of their declaration of independence to passing motorists. They now rally under the slogan “Jefferson State of mind” and write vaguely Libertarian Web logs. The demand for Northern California resources during World War II meant that the muddy roads and decrepit bridges they were so pissed off about were mostly repaired long ago. Reliably rainy Arcata even got an airport, constructed by the U.S. Air Force in order to train pilots to fly in inhospitable weather. The Kinetic state of mind is far more alive in this part of the country, despite the civil wars that have plagued the KSR over its first 34 years. The race is far too entrenched in a collective spirit of gleeful anarchy to fall prey to bureaucratic bungling, spiteful grudges or financial mismanagement.
* * *
I spend my last day in Humboldt at Paradise Flat Farms, the home of Area 51 pilot Beth Dunlap. She’s a 41-year-old hippie who moved to Humboldt from the San Francisco Bay Area in 1982. She came into a chunk of money through an insurance settlement and invested it into a fertile six-acre plot of land in the central Humboldt town of Shively. This tiny settlement of timber workers and farmers sits in an impossibly scenic valley at the end of 15 slow, winding miles of timber roads; there are at least two deer for every passing pickup truck and suspender-clad lumberjacks assess my suspiciously non-4WD sedan with wary eyes. Dunlap lives on the far side of the town in an old calf barn that she and friends have retrofitted into a comfortable, if not entirely up-to-code, living space. The walls are clear plastic—keeping the rain out but letting the gray light in—and there are cats and dogs to keep the rats at bay.
She missed the Arcata Farmer’s Market on Saturday in order to pilot “The Cosmic Wiener,” and she’s making up time today plowing the fields with her magnificent John Deere tractor. She has a plastic greenhouse full of organic crops—tomatoes, garlic, basil, squash and a variety of pepper seedlings—that need to be in the ground but she takes an hour or so to show me around the property. We end up eating freshly picked raspberries at a picnic table in her back yard next to a huge parrot living in an equally huge cage.
Hobart is the Glorious Founder and for now the altruistic bureaucrats of the HKA make the rules, but the KSR is perpetuated by people like this: homesteaders like Dunlap, ne’er-do-wells like T. Great Razooly, dour savant mechanics like Monkey and giggling artists like June Moxon. The sort of people who consider pedaling art-covered jalopies across muddy bogs and sand dunes to be not just an extension of their chosen lifestyle, but proof of the privileged nature of that lifestyle.
“We get to go out and be awesome and lead extraordinary lives,” says Dunlap. “It’s fun as hell. Not many people get to ride around in a cosmic wiener.”
Daniel Chamberlin: http://www.danielchamberlin.com