Kinetic Sculptures

The Kinetic Sculpture races have cemented themselves as a part of the culture of many towns and cities across the globe - TOM VOGT describes this ludicrous sport, along with some very bizzare pictures...

If fun makes cycling succeed then Kinetic Sculpture All Terrain Vehicles are set to conquer the world. At first sight these machines are so wonderfully comic your sides threaten to burst with laughter.

Gigantic, festooned with decorations and doodahs, they look like the ultimate Heath Robinson machines. They may seem like clownish cartoon vehicles, but when they swing into action your mouth gapes as you realize that these funny, crazy, impossible creations actually work. Using human power alone, with no outside assistance or additional devices, they churn through deep sand and slippery mud and up and down steep inclines.  Most amazing of all, they are able to cross deep, open water.

Origins of the Sport

Kinetic (moving) sculptures are works of art. The origins of the genre are attributed to glorious founder Hobart Brown, a Ferndale, California artist who in 1969 modified his son Justin's tricycle into a tall, wobbly, bright red five-wheeled creation named the Penta-cycle.

Other local artists in the community, inspired by this revelation of total truth, immediately decided to make their own machines and have a race down Main Street.

In the meantime a local Congressman, Don Clausen, was snapped on the Penta-cycle, and the photo published in newspapers far and wide across the great land of America and more particularly in California. Here, the culturally sovereign populace demonstrated its total disregard for environmental problems, the rising crime rate in schools, and Hollywood, by turning out on Mother's Day in their thousands to line Main Street and lustily cheer the Great Event.

And lo! From the hidden glens and sheltered valleys of Humboldt County in the land of the redwoods, from the minds and hearts and hands of artists – nay, total spirits! – blessed with the fruit of sunshine, spirits (drinkable), and smoke, came a stream of surprise entries... All were insanely foolish machines, tottering, cranking, and flapping down Main Street, each guided by an unswerving Divine Truth: the more magnificent, incredible, and impossible the creation, the more it had to work. Like reaching heaven, the glory was in attempting the rationally impossible, and the race immediately became an annual event.

Racing Today

Now, there are kinetic sculpture ATV races all over America, and in recognition of Where-It-All-Began, Humboldt County is the site of the World Championship Three-Day Cross-Country Kinetic Sculpture Race, run on a 38-mile course which includes shifting sand dunes, river and bay crossings, mud flats, and treacherous freeway traffic.

Prizes galore await those competitors who are stalwart and brave enough to traverse such historic stretches as Deadman's Drop and Cannibal Road – without cheating of course. (The Race Golden Rule should be noted at this point: Cheating is a privilege, not a right.)

The prizes include the Spirit of the Glorious Founder Award, Grand World Championship Award, Art Award, Speed Award, Engineering Award, and many others. The Spirit Award is determined by a secret ballot of votes cast for the creation which is judged to best exemplify the true spirit of kinetic sculpture racing.

Art is judged on creative craft including such items as use of colour, costumes and two-and three-dimensional designs. There are also options to include kinetic motion without contributing to vehicle locomotion, humour, theatricality, and not least, mass crowd appeal and media glory-seeking.

Engineering is judged on the ingenious conquering of course obstacles through sculpture design, or any aspect of sculpture design which functions in a truly unique or glorious manner.

Rules of the Game

The rules are reasonably straightforward. Sculptures must be people-powered. Stored energy is allowed for non-propulsive purposes only. It is legal to get assistance from the power of water, wind, sun, gravity, and extraterrestrials, but only if the latter are introduced to the judges prior to the race.

All equipment must be carried on the vehicle at all times, including camping gear, lights, life jackets, water, and – because the sculptures are ocean-going – flares and a compass. All pit crew must be human. Kicking, biting, scratching, fisticuffs, and the use of alcoholic beverages or controlled substances are not allowed. The roll-in/roll-out rule requires, on pain of severe time penalties, that sculptures must be propelled unassisted into, through, and out of each water terrain obstacle by the pilots, who must remain onboard throughout. Towing is prohibited, but is mandatory for sculptures swept out of Humboldt Bay into the open sea, which will (hopefully) be rescued by the Humboldt County Sheriff's Marine Posse.

Works of Art

Many of the kinetic sculptures are mechanically highly ingenious and wonderful, but the best machines are first and foremost works of art. They make you laugh, for more complex reasons than sheer wackiness.

When a little figurine on the bonnet of a kinetic sculpture suddenly comes to life, nodding its head and raucously calling a greeting, your laughter reflects surprise – and empathy. The figurine is a totally singular work of art with engaging character and presence, and it is only one little itsy-bitsy part of a far grander whole. Insane but magnificent, the kinetic sculptures bring into being a fine and estimable part of life: glory.

Editor's note

This article was originally published in 1994, but there are still many kinetic sculpture races worldwide – you can find out more on that most glorious fountain of knowledge, Wikipedia: