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Enjoy Magazine

Human Race

04/28/2014 08:19PM ● By Jon Lewis
By Jon Lewis
Photo by Tina Kerrigan Photography

The Kinetic Grand Championship in Humboldt County

A six-foot-tall hippopotamus rolls by on wheels, followed shortly by an enormous ant walking on six legs, a bionic taco and a fire-breathing dragon made out of aluminum. Meanwhile, in Humboldt Bay, an armored carp navigates toward shore with an oversized iguana close on its tail.

Welcome to the Kinetic Grand Championship, a madcap mélange of art and engineering that transforms every Memorial Day weekend in Arcata, Eureka and Ferndale into a coastal celebration of human-powered ingenuity.

“There’s a lot to love about the Kinetics,” says Kati Texas, one of the event’s reigning Rutabaga Queens and a longtime participant. “Definitely the people involved. Kinetic racers travel from all over the country just to race in our race. It’s the grand championships; the granddaddy of them all. Meeting those people, hanging out with them, competing with them … it’s one of my great pleasures.”

The race got its start in 1969 when Hobart Brown, a local sculptor, welded a pair of wheels onto his son’s tricycle and called it a Pentacycle. Jack Mays, his friend, built a moving sculpture of his own, and the two decided to set up the world’s first kinetic sculpture race as part of the Mother’s Day art fair in Ferndale.

Some 12 vehicles took part in the two-block race downtown, which was won by Bob Brown of Eureka, who piloted a smoke-spewing turtle that laid eggs—and a fun tradition was born. Some 45 years later, the Kinetic Grand Championship has evolved into a three-day, human-powered, 42-mile race over paved roads, sand dunes and water from Arcata to Ferndale.

The race’s novelty spawned national and international interest and resulted in kinetic sculpture races in Baltimore, Port Townsend, Wash., Ventura, Austin, Texas, Longmont, Colo., Poland and Australia.

Fun is foremost at the race but Texas says it’s culturally important as well. “It’s where art, engineering and athleticism all meet. It takes so many people to create a successful vehicle. You need engineering, somebody with a head for business, athletes, and an artist to make it look cool. Sometimes it’s all the same person, but that’s rare. It’s usually a collaboration.”

Texas says she started racing in 2003 as a member of renowned artist Duane Flatmo’s pit crew. She became part of Rutabaga Royalty when she was elected Rutabaga Queen in 2008 and began running her own team. In 2009, she earned the coveted ACE award for designing and piloting a vehicle that follows all the rules and completes the race.

“Out of 50 or 60 teams, 15 or 20 attempt to ACE it and only half will make it,” Texas says of the feat. She raced a couple more years before taking a seat on the Kinetic Universe board of directors. The nonprofit Kinetic Universe was formed in 2007 to take over the task of conducting the Kinetic Grand Championship.

Eureka resident Ken Beidleman, a former Redding business owner and Shasta High graduate, has had a 30-year love affair with the race. As a metal sculptor with a strong interest in engineering, design and human-powered vehicles, the race appeals to him on several levels. “Not to mention, it’s like a big giant family reunion for me. There’s about 300 to 500 people I’ve gotten to know” who flock to the coast each year for the big race.

The goal of the race is fairly straightforward, Beidleman says: “Escorting a giant piece of art from here to Ferndale without screwing it up.”

In his 30 years of racing, he has won the championship six times and received an ACE award 13 times. No longer feeling the need to prove himself on the course, Beidleman says he now focuses on the “entertainment factor.”

For this month’s race, he is going to unveil a 25-foot-long shark made in the steampunk genre. The art piece will eventually reside in Lost Coast Brewery’s new brewhouse as part of a sponsorship agreement.

Beidleman says it will be the 14th entry for the vehicle’s frame, which he spent 2,500 hours and $13,000 in materials to create. Each of the machine’s four pilots will have 588 gear possibilities at their disposal. Such a range of combinations is required to navigate the sculpture through mud, sand and water. “You could be moving a half-mile per hour in the sand, but your legs are spinning like you’re going 20 miles per hour,” he says.

The shark is the latest creation from the Kinetic Sculpture Lab, an Arcata warehouse Beidleman shares with five other artists.

Redding resident Dave Palin has teamed up with Beidleman for the past 29 years and says the race is “controlled pandemonium” that spectators enjoy as much as the competitors. The festival atmosphere includes zany costumes, live music, high-tech squirt gun fights and competitive camping with awards for the most environmentally friendly campsites.

The Kinetic Grand Championship
May 24-26, beginning in Arcata and finishing in Ferndale