As twisty, turny, and motion-sickness-inducing
as the 101 can be in redwood country, kinetic sculpture racers will tell you that it’s nothing compared
to the road they traverse from Arcata to Ferndale.
In fact, it’s not a road at all. It’s a 42-mile ordeal of
land, sand, muds, and suds. The race starts and
ends on pavement, but in between, the course
encompasses dirt tracks, 30-foot-high sand dunes,
open water, and gooey, sloppy mixtures of mud
Every May in the redwood-friendly moistness of
the Northern California coast, a wonderful exhibition of true maker determination and creativity
takes place. Approximately 30 racing teams and
thousands of spectators descend on eccentric and
unconventional little Arcata to attend what might
be the most interesting sporting event in the world,
at least to the eccentric and unconventional kind
of people who read this magazine.
Below Dead Man’s Drop,
technicians wait, ready
to deal with breaks,
blood, and twig-pierced
The size and time invested in such an outré event
defy easy understanding. On the morning of race
day, two-and-a-half dozen human-powered sculptures assemble in the town square. Watching and
waiting, the great throng of onlookers stands six
deep along the streets.
The elaborate mechanicals and their maniacal
makers wait for the blast of the town’s noon whistle.
At the sound of the klaxon horn, all begin to circle
the town square once, twice, and then a third time
until the exit gate is flung open and the racers begin
the marathon quest for glory. The crowd cheers
them, then heads off to its favorite viewing points
along the route. For the next three days, the racers
pedal their vehicles up hills and down sand dunes,
across the waters of the Eel River and Humboldt
Bay, and through the towns of Manila, Eureka, and
It’s grueling work, but the harsh conditions are
offset by post-race basking in the personal triumph
that comes from merely finishing, and in the wry
sense of humor that permeates the entire event.
That has to be enough, for there’s absolutely nothing
to motivate the racers except the glory of participating and crossing the finish line in Ferndale three
days later. Luckily, there’s plenty of glory to go
What sets this event apart from other competitions
with a homebuilt component is that it celebrates
the polymath instead of the specialist. To understand this event, and to excel at it, one can’t be
only a sculptor, or a mechanical engineer, or a cyclist.
One needs to be all three, for the final judgment
depends on the sum total of the builder’s artistry,
engineering, and physical fitness.
This is an event for polymaths, of the sort that
Leonardo Da Vinci, Blaise Pascal, and Buckminster
Fuller would enjoy. It’s not just about having overdeveloped leg muscles, and pedaling fast and long.
The best, most glorious participants must be clever
technologists, designing gear trains and vehicle
superstructures that can finish the marathon-and-a-half-long course of diverse terrain.
Some of the racing machines weigh more than a
ton fully loaded, and a fair amount of engineering
is required to make such weightiness sufficiently
mobile to be pedaled across the many conditions
encountered. Typically, this involves designs incorporating swing-down pontoons, differential gear
boxes, variable-angle recumbent seats, and most
important of all, massive drive trains, with more
gear ratios than you can shake a Cannondale at.
The pilots of kinetic racers often have more than
600 different gear ratios from which to choose.
And even that isn’t all. To be competitive, a racer
has to be beautifully sculpted as well. Builders must
have artistic talent, for skill and brawn mean little
It’s the artistry, whimsy, and imagination that
the designers and builders incorporate into their
machines that make the experience what it is. The
best machines are true works of art, evocative of
the sculpture of Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder,
and Jean Tinguely.
June Moxon’s racer is called Skaredy Kat, but she