ARCATA, Calif. — A crowd forms every Memorial Day weekend in the little artist town of Arcata under the overcast skies of the Humboldt County’s coast. They're there to witness the start of Northern California’s most epic and boisterous race.
It’s known as the Kinetic Grand Championship, a local tradition celebrating art, engineering and chaos. Though it looks like a parade, it's far from it.
The kinetic sculptures, as they are known, are about to embark on a journey of more than 50 miles. They will race over land, sand, water and mud, and they must do it under their own power. No engines, electric motors or rockets are allowed.
Racers don’t win gold medals or prizes; they do it for “the glory.” The glory means something different to each racer but if you ask organizer Jen-O, also known as Queen Jen-O, the glory is about carrying on a tradition started in 1969 by beloved artist and Kinetic Race founder Hobart Brown.
“He was curious. He was creative. He loved chaos. He was the life of the party,” said Jen-O.
As legend goes, Hobart Brown built a five-wheeled tricycle he called a pentacycle. One of his artist friends saw the pentacycle and challenged Brown and other artists to a race during the Mother’s Day Parade in Ferndale. It was such a success Brown held it every year from then on.
“It’s really exciting," said Jen-O. "We’ve had as many as 100 teams and people just show up."
Hobart Brown died in 2007. It was a huge loss to the kinetic race community but his legacy lives on at the Kinetic Lab in Arcata where you will find sculptures of races past, each with their own unique name.
“The Hippo, Night of the Iguana, Flash Gordon,” said Jen-O as she points out the corresponding works of mobile art.
The Kinetic Grand Championship is a three-day event held on Memorial Day weekend. Competitors pedal, push and bounce along more than 50 miles Humboldt County coast from Arcata to Ferndale, and by far the most difficult part of the race is going through the Samoa Dunes. Racers must put on special sand tires and pedal really hard. As you can imagine, keeping it together is tough. Breakdowns are inevitable.
“If you're not breaking down, you're not trying,” said one competitor.
2023 Kinetic Grand Championship | Bartell's Backroads
What goes up the dunes must come down. The most hair-raising part of the course is Deadman’s Drop, a steep dune that often results in racers speeding through a narrow patch of thorny bushes totally out of control. The kinetic sculptures that survive the sand dunes move on to Day Two, a race across Humboldt Bay.
To cross the bay, racers must once again add modifications to their kinetic sculptures in order to make them float. For some people, floating is all they do. Each team has its own ideas on how to propel themselves across the water and some kinetic sculptures work better than others.
Obviously racers could make more aerodynamic or maneuverable sculptures, but speed alone won’t win you this race. Judges choose a champion based on a number of factors.
“It’s art, engineering, speed and pageantry,” said Jen-O.
Pageantry is a big part of the final day of racing. Those who make it to the finish line in the Victorian town of Ferndale do their best to show off what is left of their kinetic sculptures.
In the end it's not about who wins or loses the Kinetic Championship, it’s about the glory and carrying on a tradition that a fun-loving artist started more than 50 years ago.
“He started the whole thing and I think we just follow him," said Jen-O. "He's with us, even though he is not here physically. He inspires us."
MORE ART FROM THE BACKROADS: The tale of the Westport lawn whale. How a real life whale sighting and some 'liquid inspiration' became an eye-catching DIY lawn sculpture on Highway 1.