A Peon's Eye View of the 2005 Championship Race
I had known Dave Hershberger for 18 years, and this seemed just the sort of thing he'd do. Having attended four Kinetic Sculpture Races, it was only a matter of time before he built his own sculpture. Dave's creations of any sort tend to be wildly innovative, the result of disregarding proven knowledge others have acquired for the excitement of learning new lessons himself.
A typical Kinetic Sculpture starts with a 4-wheel chassis which isn't anything special to look at, but solves the engineering challenge of getting through the race in one piece. The art challenge is mastered somewhat independently by an exciting shell of fiberglass, plastic, mylar, extruded foam, or whatnot, fastened onto the chassis. Dave never considered this conventional design.
Dave responded to both challenges with one
sculpture, unifying form and function. He started with the wheels. In the tradition of
"What Would Hobart1 Do?", one could surmise there is little
point in having small wheels when one can have large wheels. Dave's garage had a 9-foot
high door, which settled that.
Since building 9-foot diameter wheels would be
difficult, he settled upon the minimum quantity of them—two. And once one has
a design with two 9-foot wheels, everything else starts to fall into place. You can read his
construction website for
To implement his design, he developed and employed welding, mechanics, plastics, physics, hydraulics, and buoyancy.
From the beginning, Dave sensed that his design, although straightforward, might be a bit difficult to propel through the
42-mile race. Thus was christened the Unwheeldy.
FRIDAY NIGHT: FERNDALE
To attend the 2004 race, we made the mistake of flying into the nearest major city—Sacramento—where we stood in line at Budget Rent-a-Car for an hour before they jacked up the rate on our confirmed reservation and told us to take it or leave it. Then we drove north for 6 hours. To attend the 2005 race, we did it right and took a puddle jumper straight into Humboldt County. That flight takes you back in time to when air travel was magical. You land at the airport, walk 50 feet across the tarmac into the terminal, and right there beside the baggage claim are the car rentals. Standing behind the one other customer to form a minimal "line" prompts the woman behind the counter to say "You must be Mr. Jones—welcome to Alamo! Sorry for the delay—I'll be with you as soon as I'm finished helping Mrs. Himmelfarb here." Ten minutes later, we had our baggage, our car, and were on our way, a magnificent welcome to the North Coast.
Five of us constituted her team. Captain, Pilot, and Creator Dave Hershberger
enlisted Copilot Matt Frost, Pit Crew Members Karen Wallace and Elena Eneva, and Peon
Tom Jones (yours truly). Unwheeldy was assembled in Pasadena, California, and
accompanied Dave and Matt on a trailer for its 635-mile journey northward. Tom and Karen
arrived by plane from Greenbelt, Maryland.
Finally, at 1am the night before the race, the entire team was united with its vehicle at the grand old home of our hosts, Ellin Beltz and Ken Mierzwa, in Ferndale. All seemed ready.
10:00AM SATURDAY: ARCATA TOWN PLAZA
Meanwhile in a parking lot off the square, Unwheeldy received a lot of attention. One 7-year-old boy asked "How do you true those spokes?", reflecting the astonishing mechanical proclivities of Humboldt County youth. A water safety judge approached:
WATER SAFETY JUDGE: Floatation is.....?
At 11:30am, Matt returned with hardware, which he began installing. At 11:45,
Unwheeldy was complete, and Dave and Matt started pedaling her toward the
square. A crowd of spectators
immediately formed around the sculpture, asking all sorts of questions, foremost among them "How does it float?" To our surprise, even
race veterans didn't recognize that the transparent plastic base of the
sculpture would serve as a boat hull.
In a LeMans Start, the vehicles start in one place, the racers across the street. Less than one minute after Unwheeldy was in her space, the whistle blew, and dozens of pilots dashed for their sculptures, including Dave and Matt. As Unwheeldy set forth on her maiden voyage around the town square, we pit crew followed along. As we were passed again and again, we realized we were one of the slowest sculptures on the square. After a couple of laps of sculptures careening madly around the square as thousands of spectators cheered, the timers threw open the starting line and sculptures poured from the square onto the street beyond. As we passed, a policeman reached frantically in his pocket, pulled out his camera, and photographed our twin wheels rolling by.
The racecourse heads out of Arcata toward the ocean along rural farm roads. Every quarter mile or so, a cluster of tailgaters cheered on the racers. We were passed by many a sculpture, and many of those passing took a photo of Unwheeldy, perhaps suspecting that we might not make it to the finish line.
So I surged ahead on my bicycle. My bicycles at home are sized for my 74-inch height. At the KSR, my borrowed bike was built for someone somewhat shorter; riding it reminded me why they make bikes in different sizes. After I had bolted about 3 miles ahead of Unwheeldy, I realized I had left all my water with them. It would be a long way back, and I thought "What would Hobart do?" and decided to persevere, parched.
A few miles later, I left pavement near Dead Man's Drop, and was exhausted. We had been up late the previous night reunioning. My mountain bike was no match for the trail's loose sand, so I abandoned it in the bushes. I remembered that water would be vended at Dead Man's Drop, so I ran along the trail, until I was so exhausted and dehydrated I had to stop to rest to avoid passing out, even though resting meant I'd get more dehydrated in the meantime. That's when the cloud of mosquitoes that had been trailing me caught up.
East of Dead Man's Drop is the site of the second-worst mosquito infestation I have ever seen. This was clearly the least desirable spot in Humboldt county in which to pass out—before regaining consciousness I would be transformed through a series of miniscule blood donations into Tom the Human Welt. So I persevered yet further. Several minutes later, I came out of the bushes at the base of the great hill that is Dead Man's Drop. Knowing that there were volunteers selling water at the top for $2 a bottle, I redoubled my efforts up the steep slope, resolving to purchase as much water as I could possibly need, and never to run out of water ever again. About a third of the way up the hill, through the haze of heat exhaustion, a woman called to me by name, probably repeatedly. I turned toward the voice and recognized a charming woman I had met at a Gone with the Wind party in Baltimore's Little Italy two weeks earlier, where I had been wearing a southern gentleman white linen suit, and she an astonishingly broad hoop skirt. After brief conversation, and introduction to her parents, I staggered to the summit.
2PM SATURDAY: APPROACHING DEAD MAN'S DROP
I bought two 24-ounce water bottles, drank them both within 3 minutes, and started to feel better. I arrived to see the lead sculpture go down the drop.
At the starting line, many pilots are obsessive about the cleanliness of their sculptures. They'll wipe off a bit of dirt, and worry about scratches. But by the time they get to Dead Man's Drop, that attitude has given way to fatigue. The sculptures are sheathed in grime and sand, and the racers are sheathed in sweat and sand and no longer care.
After reporting on the situation via cellphone to the rest of the team, I hiked through the dunes to the beach to join them. On a desolate section of narrow trail, I happened to witness the most significant pilot illness of the 2005 race—a pilot got sick behind some bushes. (A medic arrived within a few minutes, and the pilot was brought to the hospital where he recovered.)
Once out on the Pacific beach, I ran north along the coast to meet the gang.
Things were going reasonably well along the beach. Dave and Matt heaved the sculpture along while Karen and Elena provided encouraging words. Finally, we reached the point at which the course left the ocean and headed inland, following a trail up and among the dunes, our first "Legal Push" area. Karen and Elena heaved and flailed to assist the massive mechanism's progress up the steep bit. Our goal at this point was to ACE the race, which means following a considerable number of rules that make the race significantly more challenging. Among them:
Liberally interpreted, we had been informed, this means that Pit Crew are allowed to "lean" against the sculpture to prevent it from sliding backwards, but that the sculpture cannot move forward except fully under its own power. Further, since I was a "peon" and not "pit crew", I was not allowed to push it even in the Legal Push zones. (The number of official pit crew cannot exceed the number of pilots; additional individuals are designated as peons.)
However, Peons are not prevented from smoothing the track, so I scurried immediately ahead, removing bits of driftwood and assorted debris. It was obvious that ours was the widest sculpture through the dunes, for only the center of the path had already been thusly smoothed.
An interesting shortcoming of Unwheeldy became evident on the narrow trail. In his extraordinarily simple and elegant design, Dave had configured the sculpture so that the left pilot powered the left wheel, and the right pilot powered the right wheel. This "differential drive" avoided the need for a steering wheel—a turn to the right was accomplished by having the pilot on the left pedal faster than the pilot on the right. This design also allowed extremely sharp turns if one side of the sculpture braked while the other pilot pedaled. However, the tragic flaw in this design is that no human is effective at pedaling precisely as fast as another. Even in the flattest terrain, the merest bit of over-enthusiasm or under-enthusiasm by either pilot would cause the sculpture to turn toward one side or the other. In the dunes, this meant veering off the trail course, inevitably crashing into unsuspecting shrubbery. Driving straight has never been so great a challenge.
Unwheeldy's 2-wheel design also gave it an unusual method of surmounting obstacles. When the wheels came to a wide bump, they would stop rolling forward. The carriage holding the pilots, however, would ratchet progressively forward and upward, until enough gravitational potential energy had accumulated to cause the entire contraption to lurch forward over the obstacle, at which point the carriage and pilots would swing back down as the wheels rotated. The dunes were the first lumpy terrain we encountered along the course, and there was a great deal of lurching and swinging. When not lurching or swinging, there was a great deal of leaning to avoid losing ground.
The finish line that first day lay on the other side of the dunes, beyond Dead Man's Drop, over the Samoa Bridge, at the Eureka town square. Pragmatically, there was no way we would make it in time; progress was simply too exhausting.
But an even bigger problem presented itself. As we climbed hill after hill, with the ratcheting-lurching-swinging motion, Dave noticed that his chain was coming loose. A closer investigation revealed that the frame was bending. Before building any of his design, Dave had conducted a detailed strength analysis of every structural member. In places where the structure needed to bear more weight, he reconfigured the design or made the metal thicker. However, after he began putting the sculpture together, he realized it would be nice if pilots shorter than six feet tall could drive it. So he decided to make the pedal position adjustable. Unfortunately, in adding that adjustability, he introduced an Achilles heel that hadn't been part of the original analysis. During periods when the sculpture ratcheted upward to accumulate potential energy to surmount an obstacle, all that energy was channeled directly through a steel tube supporting the pedals that was merely 1.5 inches in diameter. And that tube was bending.
We stopped and considered our situation. It was agonizingly obvious that we would not be able to make it up the remaining dunes without the tube bending to the point that Unwheeldy would be unridable. Further, there was no spare tube among our spare parts. We needed a replacement, welded in place. We had no welding equipment, nor even the tools to take apart the bent frame. The future was cloudy.
While we sat there contemplating doom, we heard a motor over the horizon. A Unimog—a giant elevated motorized dune buggy contraption that laughs at the feebleness of other SUVs—drove down the trail and stopped just in front of us. Out sprang its driver, festooned with Glory, and an official badge reading "Aly Krause, ACE JUDGE". In the blink of a moment, he assessed the situation, and said "You guys are in a pickle. I'm afraid if you can't proceed I'm going to have to disqualify your ACE." We grunted miserable agreement. He continued, "Guys, this is an incredible work of engineering, and we all want to see it cross the finish line. It looks like if you just bend the bar back straight, add a triangular support here, and add another support here, you'll be back on the road. I've got a welding shop in Eureka—if you want to bring it there tonight, we'll straighten you out." It turned out Aly is one of the most experienced racers on the course, and his sculptures have won more Speed awards than anyone else's. The speed rule quoted above is named after him. We later learned that one of the spectators who saw us break down was one of the HAMMs—amateur radio operators who support the race operation by keeping an eye on the racers. They keep an extra-close eye on any sculpture signed up to ACE the course, and referred to us as "Big Wheels". Seeing us in trouble, they summoned an ACE judge to witness our breakdown and cross us off the ACE list. But, in the fabulous Kinetic spirit, they sent a judge who could offer the supplies, equipment, and expertise to repair the damage.
Relieved of the pressure to ACE, the rule against pushing the sculpture no longer applied. Working together, we heaved Unwheeldy to the top of Dead Man's Drop.
5PM SATURDAY: DEAD MAN'S DROP
We learned that race officials had actually increased the height of Dead Man's Drop for the 2005 race. If you haven't seen the site, it's a giant sand dune, as steep as theoretically possible—geologists call it the "angle of repose". Climbing Dead Man's Drop on foot is exhausting. And in order to ACE, a sculpture must drive down the dune, turn to the right partway down, and steer into a tunnel through the bushes at the bottom of the hill. So far that day, three sculptures had flipped over.
Since we were no longer ACEing, and our pilots were exhausted, we envisioned
the nightmare that could result from a crash—a 9-foot wheel bent into the shape
of a taco might be more than Aly's Sculpture Garage could handle on short notice.
We decided to play it safe and go down on a rope
as many other sculptures had done. A line was tied, and a team of seven volunteers lowered her down the slope.
At the bottom, we soon discovered that, while many volunteers had worked hard to ensure the trail was wide enough for sculptures to pass, it was still narrower than our big wheels. As we heaved through the brush, the spokes ripped down more than a few branches, widening the trail for other sculptures to follow.
Once back on pavement, finishing on time was out of the question, so we made arrangements for dinner. We found a nice restaurant in Eureka with a sign on the door: "We Welcome Kinetic Sculpture Racers!" Covered with mud and sand, at the end of one of the most exhausting days of my life, I was still wearing my race credentials and glory as I approached the hostess and said "Do you have a table suitable for six incredibly unbathed, tired racers?" The hostess said "Yes! Of course we do! Welcome to Hurricane Kate's!" As the whole team entered, we became the subject of attention, and a few patrons approached and asked about our sculpture and race experience. One anonymous patron treated us to a round of drinks. Exhausted, filthy, and with a broken sculpture on a trailer parked outside, we nonetheless felt triumphant.
SUNDAY 8:00AM: UNDER THE SAMOA BRIDGE
Late night work by Dave, Matt, and Aly had Unwheeldy as good as new, ready to strut her stuff in the water. Even as we unloaded her from the trailer, a spectator approached and said "Are you guys going in the water with that? Will it float?"
All the sculptures got in line. They began preparation for their nautical journey—installing oars, inflating pontoons. Unwheeldy, however, was already to go with clear plastic paddles already in place attached to the spokes. As we had explained time and time again, "It's a boat!"
Other sculptures splashed into the water with fanfare. The crowd was clearly having a good time. Rampmeister was performing his traditional role ensuring order and efficiency at the site. I was out on the pier, taking photos as sculptures entered the water. Suddenly, my watchband broke, and my shiny purple metal watch crashed to the decking, bounced several times, and landed in the water with a ker-sploosh. One of the other photographers said "Did you just drop a fish?" My watch to this day remains at the bottom of Humboldt Bay.
One of the sculptures broke apart when it entered the water (reminiscent of the 2005 Baltimore Race), and another had to return to land when they were discovered to have left behind some of their equipment. (Another ACE rule states that all equipment must be carried on board the sculpture throughout the race.)
Unwheeldy made it to the front of the queue, and the crowd cheered as Rampmeister blew his whistle and Dave and Matt began rolling down toward the water. The crowd roared with cheers and applause as they gently splashed and the plastic paddles began propelling. But then, the crowd's roar changed. Unwheeldy had bogged down in mud. A very large gob of mud was scooped by one of the 8x14-inch paddles, and the crowd began shouting "Oooooohhhhhhh!" as the mud climbed the giant wheel. Inside the sculpture, Dave and Matt only heard the changing voice of the crowd, wondering what was happening, when that great gob of stinky baybottom mud slid off the paddle and landed on Dave. The crowd exploded with laughter as Unwheeldy headed to deeper water.
After photographing some more sculptures entering the water, Karen, Elena, and I set off on our bicycles, heading south a few miles to where the racers exit the water.
10:30AM SATURDAY: ON THE COAST OF HUMBOLDT BAY
Unwheeldy was more at home on the water than on land, and the spoke-bound paddles provided ample, effective propulsion. Unfortunately, Matt and Dave were exhausted from the previous day's massive racing, and staying up past midnight welding at Aly's shop, so their progress was not swift. They also discovered that the giant wheels acted more like a sail than might have been suspected. Every time they stopped pedaling for even a moment, the vicious headwind gnawed away their progress. No rest for the weary.
Out on the water, there are no bathrooms. At the most discreet moment possible, with no spectators visible on land, Matt stood and made a personal contribution of fluid into Humboldt Bay. A kayaker shouted from a great distance away, "Hey! This is a family race!"
11:00AM SATURDAY: EXITING HUMBOLDT BAY
Karen, Elena, and I were ready to go on. Matt and Dave were not. This seemed like a good time to get provisions, so Karen and Elena and I headed to town on our bikes to restock our water, snacks, and first aid supplies. When we returned, we found that Matt was so exhausted he had fallen asleep in the only shade available—under a semi-trailer in the parking lot. But some official had forbidden sleeping there, expressing the wacky phobia that the trailer might fall on him.
3:00PM SATURDAY: PEON AT THE HELM
Since the ACE award was no longer a possibility, and Matt and Dave were exhausted, Elena and I took over pedaling for a while. We started where the racecourse left pavement and entered a single-lane dirt road. There we experienced first-hand the excitement and difficulty of driving the sculpture.
A second factor is that the boat hull acrylic is somewhat reflective, so the curved shape is remarkably like one of those parabolic contraptions that focus sunlight to boil water. The boat hull concentrates the sun onto all sides of the pilots for a nice even roasting effect.
A third factor involves acoustics. When you're in the carriage, you really can't hear a darn thing from the front or back—even from just a few feet away I had to bellow with maximum enthusiasm to have a chance of being heard. The pilots inadvertently impersonate the deaf. The only way to be heard from outside Unwheeldy is to come around the side and holler through the spokes.
But most important, the critical fourth factor is that the difficulty of differential drive cannot be overdramatized. If one pilot or the other goes just the teensiest bit faster than the other, the sculpture begins pitching to one side. This is bad enough on wide, flat terrain. But on a dirt road just slightly wider than the sculpture (and in parts, narrower), high-precision synchronized pedaling is required, which adds serious mental exhaustion to the requisite physical exhaustion.Elena and I had a grand time heaving along this "road", when out of nowhere a gentleman of more than a few years leapt in front of us and said "Happiness Checkpoint!" To prevent chicanery, the race organizers place checkpoints at a few of the most likely places an illegal shortcut might be taken. At this checkpoint, the telling of an original joke was required. As we were all either exhausted or aiming to get that way, we stammered for some time before Karen finally blurted out the old witticism about the interrupting mathematician4.
On the trail, we also found a cellphone belonging to the Area 51 team, and identified the owner when his teammates kept calling us. It's amazing, though, how hard it is to convince someone that you're not the cellphone's owner. We got the phone back to Area 51 later that day, good karma for when I was to leave my backpack at Crab Park and have it returned at the finish line by Race Official Tina.
10:00AM SUNDAY: TO THE FINISH LINE
Awakening Sunday morning, we were informed by certain race officials that the racecourse had been changed, and that the customary route up the slough was not available that year. Instead, sculptures would cross the Eel River over the Fernbridge—a long, barely 2-lane viaduct from the highway to Ferndale. Further, because the bridge would be closed while sculptures crossed, all sculptures would cross together. Any sculptures with the habit of not arriving at finish lines on time were told to make arrangements to ensure they did not arrive late at the bridge.
We made arrangements.
Unwheeldy seemed particularly easy to drive that last day for Matt and Dave. Perhaps because they had only a few miles to go, or perhaps because we had removed every last bit of equipment from the carriage in preparation for what was coming at the finish line, the guys zipped along so fast that a speedy jog was required to keep up with them.
As we made the final turn onto Main Street for the approach to the finish line in downtown Ferndale, they seemed to redouble their effort again, and were really rolling along. The crowd thickens the closer you get to downtown, louder and more enthusiastic with every block. Finally, the finish line came into sight.
It is customary to make a final flourish as a sculpture crosses the finish line—a 360-degree turn looping
around in the intersection right before crossing. We rotated along a different
axis. A few feet before the finish line, we stopped the carriage, and Matt
jumped out. Then Dave locked the brakes, and Matt and Karen rocked Unwheeldy back
and forth swinging further and further each time. The volume of the cheering crowd got louder with every swing. Finally,
with enough momentum engaged, they pushed Dave up into the air, and he went over the finish line upside down. To the
roar of applause, and with every eye in the crowd on Dave, he did a 360° roll and finished the race like no one else.
THE AWARDS CEREMONY
The Engineering judges were very impressed with Dave’s inspirational genius, and more than one person that weekend said Dave reminded them of Hobart Brown, in his tendency to build outlandish designs that are comical by their very nature, to persevere with those designs no matter how improbable they might seem, and to convince friends to go along with the entire improbable plan. All of the customary awards for engineering, however, required that the sculpture also ACE to qualify for consideration. But they called us to the podium nonetheless. We were thrilled to find that Unwheeldy received the first Honorable Mention for Engineering in the 37-year history of the Kinetic Sculpture Race Championship.
I also received a great personal honor at the awards ceremony. Hobart himself presented me with the title of Kinetic Seer, and I share this title with only 30 others throughout the world. The Seer amulets are the only glory Hobart makes himself these days, and I will be very proud to bear the Seer Glory at future Kinetic races on all coasts, and to continue to do what I can to make the world more Kinetic.
LOOKING AHEAD: 2006
There are obviously many lessons from Unwheeldy’s first race! Mad Captain Dave is already contemplating the design changes necessary to ACE in 2006. If you’re at the race, and see us at the beginning or end of the day, you might even have the special experience of driving her for a short distance. Come say hi!
On behalf of this Peon Seer, and the entire Unwheeldy crew, I wish to thank:
|The Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race is sponsored and run by the American Visionary Art Museum. KineticBaltimore.com is the volunteer work of Tom Jones. |
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