The last Monday in May is coming up, which means it's time to celebrate Memorial Day, an American holiday honoring our military veterans. There will be flags and parades all over and, in Indianapolis, a 500-mile auto race that's been held for more than 100 years. Here in Humboldt we have another, quite different race on Memorial Day weekend: The Kinetic Grand Championship, aka The Kinetic Sculpture Race. What's that, you might ask if you're a tourist or just new in town?
The folks who organize it describe it as the triathlon of the art world, "a three-day, 42-mile bicycle race over land, sand, mud and water." While many of the machines are crafted from bicycle parts, the word "bicycle" is insufficient here. These are human-powered all-terrain "Kinetic Sculptures" -- art pieces piloted by mad mechanic/sculptors, typically accompanied by elaborately costumed "pit crew" entourages. It's a team effort -- as is the entire gargantuan endeavor.
The Kinetic Race has a long, storied history going back to 1969, when local sculptor Hobart Brown organized a short competition with some artist friends in Ferndale. Known forever as "The Glorious Founder," Hobart went on to spread Kinetic consciousness worldwide, instigating races around the United States and abroad. Before he died in 2007, a group of Kinetic royals known as the Rutabaga Queens formed Kinetic Universe to keep the race going.
At this point three Queens (the title is lifelong) serve on the nonprofit group's seven-member board. Rutabaga Queen Emma Breacain serves as treasurer, press officer and event planner. While helping coordinate the 150 to 200 volunteers who run the race and associated events like the Rutabaga Ball, she oversees an annual budget of around $50,000.
"The first race was done by the skin of our teeth with personal loans. Now we have some sponsors who give us money," said Queen Emma. (Among them: Colorado's New Belgium Brewing, which kicked in $10,000 this year.) Fundraising, logistics and dealing with various bureaucracies that must sign off on the countywide event require a massive amount of time and effort. Why do they do it?
There are a couple of pat answers: Hobart would always say, "For the glory!" and explain that Kinetics is about "adults having fun so children desire to grow older."
KU President and Rutabaga Queen Kati Texas has been racing for 10 years, including six years with Kinetic Ace Duane Flatmo's crew. She says she got into Kinetics because, "that place where designer and art meet is such fertile ground," showing us "the connection between things that look beautiful and work beautifully."
Says Queen Emma, "I ask myself ‘why' all the time -- it is a lot of work and it invades the other departments of your life relentlessly. Speaking only for myself, I fell in love with the event and the people, the amazing, insane art and engineering, and the festive spirit. Everyone has something they can bring to this party; everyone can play."
Newly crowned Rutabaga Queen Wendy "Sohotshe" Burns says she got involved in Kinetics because, "as a spectator, I was inspired by the pure sense of fun and unbridled creativity that the participants embraced." She started out three years ago as what's known as a pageantry judge and became increasingly engrossed in Kinetic culture and its sense of community. "This is 100 percent a community event," she emphasizes, "and not just local community. It really reaches out to communities abroad, making stronger connections with creative, like-minded folks."
Ready for some kinetic madness? The Kinetic Grand Championship insert in the middle of this paper includes the arcane set of rules along with a map of the race route. Wherever you go, bring your camera. This is one of Humboldt's most photogenic events. And tune in to Kinetic sponsor KHUM-FM, which will provide race coverage all weekend.
Saturday morning on the Arcata Plaza is the best location to see all the machines in one place. Come early to mingle with the racers as they prepare and have their brakes tested. The LeMans start is a must-see, with dozens of sculptures circling the town square twice. From there things spread out as the race goes through Manila with a side-trip though the dunes onto the beach before heading for the gazebo in Old Town Eureka.
Sunday begins with a "bay crossing" test demonstrating seaworthiness. After lunch at Eureka Natural Foods, the machines are off to Cannibal Island for a racers-only overnighter. Monday it's best to wait for the machines to arrive on the finish line on Ferndale's Main Street, the place where the race was born 43 years ago. An awards sinner follows in the Ferndale Fireman's Hall at round 5:30 p.m. and another glorious Kinetic Grand Championship is complete. Time to start planning for the next one.
Incidentally, at 10 a.m. Monday, before the racers arrive in town, Ferndale has a glorious traditional Memorial Day Parade, right down Main Street.