Truly Moving Art : Zany Race Features Human-Powered Sculptures

Times Staff Writer

Lone Shark would not swim.

But the rascally Wabbit would . . . sort of.

So, along with 60 or so other wild works of art, the rabbit-shaped Wabbit plunged Sunday into chilly, muddy Humboldt Bay.

Object: Finish the second leg of the often-copied, never-surpassed, World Championship Great Arcata to Ferndale Cross-Country Kinetic Sculpture Race, in its 16th year.


The Wabbit, undaunted by a low tide that turned much of the bay into mud, skidded off Fields Landing and into the briny challenge.

One by one, dozens more followed it like so many artistic lemmings.

The shark, being more familiar with the sea and its treacheries (not to mention its own lack of flotation device), opted for a lift on a motorboat.

It takes three days for the somewhat rickety human-powered artworks to cover the contest’s 38-mile land and sea course along the Northern California coast, and each day has its special challenge.


There is sand, sea and slime as contestants slog their way from coastal Arcata inland toward Ferndale. About 70 entries started the race (officials were too busy having fun to count); several collapsed Saturday in the sand dunes. The race will end today after racers ford the Eel River, climb the treacherous Slimy Slope, and cruise into Ferndale.

The first race was held in 1969 when Ferndale artist Hobart Brown decided he was not satisfied with the appearance of his son’s tricycle and incorporated it into a sculpture.

A colleague teasingly said he could do a better job and welded up his own version. Brown challenged him to a race down Ferndale’s main street, and the challenge became an annual event.

“It started small and included everyone,” said Brown, standing before his entry, the Quagmire Queen, in his uniform of top hat, tail coat--and striped union suit.

As tradition demands, the Queen is the largest--17 crew members, 10-foot-tall wheels--and the slowest entry.

“Everyone who wants to participate is invited,” he added.

With that as its motto, the race has grown not only in popularity, but also in length, from the original run down Ferndale’s Main Street to the latest 38-mile version.

“It’s a great big community joke,” said Brown, now mock-reverently called the Glorious Founder. “The race is the setup; the entries are the punch line.”


Contestants, too, become part of the joke. Just ask The Great Razooly.

The dastardliest of villains--obvious by his black top hat, cape and mask--Razooly confided: “We always find shortcuts, and anything you do to the competition in the sand dunes is fair . . . uh, this IS on the QT, isn’t it?”

Some entries appeared to be designed especially to win the Worst Honorable Mention Award, which according to rules and tradition is given to the “ugliest and grossest” entry.

Others, perhaps seeking cash awards of up to $7.49, competed for a variety of more technical awards:

- The Golden Dinosaur Award, for the first entry to fail, such as the Runner Duck, which broke down 100 yards from the start.

Excitement at the End

- The Next-to-Last Award. “If you drag in last, there is no excitement,” explained race director Susan Williams. “But if you have a chance to finish NEXT to last, you have suspense.”

- The Aurora Mediocritas Award for finishing exactly in the middle of the field. “Both (winning and losing) are extremes,” Brown said. “Therefore, perfection lies in the middle.”


Many, however, were satisfied with art for art’s sake--or at least for the sake of whimsy.

There was, for example, the giant picnic basket crewed by people dressed as a wedge of Swiss cheese, a loaf of bread, mixed fruit--and ants.

Several other teams sported vehicles made to resemble their favorite creepy-crawlies: ladybug, scorpion, bumblebee, chameleon.

A few clearly were built for speed, such as the defending champion, Rhino. These sculptures were of the minimalist school--crew members, pedals, wheels and little else.

To the casual spectator, the only apparent standard was that entries be able to start and stop.

Toothbrush, Sleeping Bag

However, race rules required more--not only safety inspections, but also one toothbrush and one sleeping bag per crew member, these for use during the big Sunday night barbecue.

Why volunteer for such foolishness?

“It’s really a charge,” said Mark King of Eureka, who teamed with Russell Willett to pilot the Egret Nine Minus Two, a slick tubular sculpture. “You really feel like you have accomplished something. It’s like the Olympics.”

Others, like Scott Seago, were drawn by more spiritual pursuits.

“I was invited by a friend, but I did not want to go through all this,” Seago said, struggling through the sand with his entry, which snapped in half while he hitchhiked here. “Then he said, ‘It’s for the glory of it all,’ and I couldn’t resist.”