Each year on Memorial Day weekend in Northern California – a land known for the uniqueness of its larger-than-life trees and characters who reside beneath them – plays host to an event that defies easy categorization. Casually referred to as the “triathlon of the art world,” Humboldt County’s Kinetic Grand Championship is truly a “sporting” event like none other.
A local tradition since 1969, kinetic sculpture racing occupies that very small slice on the Venn diagram where visual and performing arts overlap with innovative human powered engineering, plus a physical endurance test spanning the timeless landscape of the redwoods. The philosophy behind the event, coined by co-founder Hobart Brown, is: “Adults having fun so children will want to grow older.”
Brown originated the genre of kinetic sculpture racing almost by accident at his home when he “improved” the appearance of his son’s tricycle by welding on two additional wheels plus assorted bonus embellishments. After spotting the renamed “Penticycle,” fellow artist Jack Mays challenged Brown to a race. Later the field of competitors expanded to twelve, which first rallied down Ferndale’s Main Street during the town’s annual art festival, marking what would become known as the Kinetic Grand Championship’s inaugural competition. Both Brown and Mays lost to a smoke-breathing turtle that laid eggs, though an image of former Congressman Don Clausen astride the Penticycle would garner national attention.
Lest one mistake the modern incarnation of the race for mere frippery intended to bring exercise to art nerds and engineering geeks: the race lasts three whole days. Competitors must negotiate their homemade art-machines through sand, mud and pavement, then paddle a bay, cross a river, and traverse major hills. The Arcata Plaza is the starting place for this annual event. While the festivities have spread to other cities (an “Eastern Championship” is hosted by Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum) have created their own races, only Humboldt County’s original can proclaim the world champion in kinetic art racing.
Know Before You Go
The event starts at 10:00am at the Arcata Town Plaza, at H Street & 9th Street. The race starts here, and ends in Ferndale, about 25 miles south.