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Art in motion at the Kinetic Grand Championship

From Nick Thompson, for CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The 43rd annual Kinetic Grand Championship takes place in northern California this weekend
  • Participants pilot human-powered art sculptures on wheels in the 3-day, 42-mile race
  • The most coveted award is the "Mediocre Award," given to the team with the most average score

(CNN) -- Forget about the Indy 500, America's wildest race will be taking place almost 2,000 miles away in Humboldt County, California this weekend.

Scores of artists, pilots and engineers will bring their one-of-a-kind kinetic machines to race for the glory at the 43rd annual Kinetic Grand Championships.

Billed as "The Triathlon of the Art World," the event pits human-powered art sculptures on wheels against one another in a three-day race across California's northern coast.

Pilots guiding "kinetic sculptures" ranging from gigantic tricycles to hulking metallic lobsters will traverse road, water and sand on their way from the city of Arcata to Ferndale, where the race was invented in 1969 by artist and metal sculptor Hobart Brown.

We did try to start a rumor that this year we'd be pedalling in the nude.
--Emma Brecain, kinetic racer

While that first race ran for several blocks and featured just a handful of kinetic sculptures, the 2011 version stretches across 42 miles and will include roughly 40 teams, according to Emma Brecain, treasurer of Kinetic Universe, the non-profit organization that runs the race.

"You never know how it's going to play out, there are no guarantees and there aren't really any standards," says Brecain, the 2007 Rutabaga Queen (race overseer). "But we'll all have fun no matter what happens."

The championship is less about racing to the finish line and more about getting there in style, according to Brecain.

While there are awards for the best engineered or most artistic contraption, the most coveted award is the "Mediocre Award," which is given to the team with the most average overall scores.

Last year, Brecain's team raced on a contraption composed of 10 bicycles welded to the chassis of a Ford Ranger. Calling themselves the "Classical Nudes," the team wore flesh-colored leotards and topped their moveable artwork with a gigantic Styrofoam replica of Michelangelo's "David" sculpture.

"We're trying to keep this year's theme top secret," says Brecain. "But we did try to start a rumor that this year we'd be pedaling in the actual nude."

We condone cheating, especially if it is done with originality and panache.
--Elliot Naess, kinetic sculpture expert
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The machines themselves can take anywhere from a few weeks to several years to build, says Elliot Naess, a 10-year kinetic veteran who has built three race-ready sculptures from scratch.

And while some consist of little more than a couple of bicycles welded together, Naess says he's seen sculptures that cost upwards of $20,000 -- and that a pricey machine is by no means a safe bet once it hits the track.

"The basic mechanical aspect seems to be the most difficult," says Naess, "and those with less than three years of experience tend to have serious mechanical flaws in their machines."

"Acing" the race, or "getting through the race without demerits," as Naess says, is the goal for a handful of purists at the championship each year -- a task much easier said than done given the myriad different, and often unexpected, obstacles along the way.

"I think the most challenging part of the course is the water crossings -- they're terrifying," says Jen Weiss, who has been part of several kinetic teams who met a watery demise in past races.

For last year's race, Weiss and her husband Billy spent three months building their Taco Truck sculpture, a Day of the Dead-inspired ode to the traveling Mexican food kitchens that are ubiquitous in California.

"We just thought, how funny would it be to see a taco truck just come over the dunes and head into the water?" laughs Weiss.

The Taco Truck's bid to ace last year's race ended on the first day when the sculpture's drive train broke on a sand dune, says Weiss.

"For me, just pedaling 42 miles in three days is about as intense and athletic as I get," says Emma Brecain. "But there are also engineering challenges, and emotional challenges -- how you handle your stress on the course."

In the end, Elliot Naess says kinetic sculpture racing is about "having fun without consequences."

"The only real rules are the necessary safety regulations. The rest of the elaborate rule book is largely on a lark," he says.

"And we condone cheating -- especially if it is done with originality and panache."

 
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