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Another vehicle for art

Jacksonville man's kinetic sculpture enters races with other odd inventions

JACKSONVILLE ' When Bob Thompson drives down the street, heads turn, mouths gape and people are reminded that life shouldn't be taken too seriously.

What he's driving is neither car nor bike but a wild offspring of both ' something called a kinetic sculpture. His invention is an 8-foot-tall tricycle with 80-inch spoked wheels, front-wheel drive and 21 gears, pedaled by three pilots.

In races in Corvallis, Arcata, Calif., and Port Townsend, Wash., Thompson and 30 to 80 other competitors are judged on speed, engineering and artistic accomplishment as they pedal over pavement, mud, sand, steep hills and water (all kinetic sculptures must be amphibious) in two- to three-day events.

For Thompson, 55, and his crew of drivers and helpers, the building and racing of kinetic sculptures is a passion that challenges their gearhead mechanical skills, brings out creative and usually humorous art and supports a happy community around the sport.

— It's such fun and camaraderie with a big, playful element, like Halloween, said Thompson, a former machinist and toolmaker who dresses in costumes for the races.

Wheeling his machine around his Forest Creek Road home between Jacksonville and Ruch, Thompson gets attention.

When you get on one of these things, it turns you instantly into the center of attraction, Thompson said. It takes you into another world. There's a lot of hilarity involved.

Kinetic sculpture racing started on a whim 35 years ago in Ferndale, Calif., when some guys built strange bikes for local children and raced them up and down the town's main street.

That race, the granddaddy of them all, still goes on every Labor Day weekend, but now covers the 40 miles between Arcata, Calif., and Ferndale and includes jaunts down ocean beaches, over dunes, in the surf and across the Eel River and even down busy Highway 101.

Thompson aced that race last year, a high honor won by getting through a course without having to get out and push. In the DaVinci Days race in Corvallis, he aced the course and won second place for engineering and second place overall.

Although there are other kinetic racers in the Rogue Valley, including South Medford High teachers Dan Swanson and Tim Ponzoha (who teach kinetic sculpture to their students), there are as yet no kinetic races in the region.

Given the spectacle, fun and tourist magnetism of kinetic racing, Thompson hopes to get Ashland merchants interested in sponsoring a weekend of racing, he said.

It's my daydream, he said. Ashland to Emigrant Lake would be perfect, and you could do the sand and mud challenges at the lake. It would bring racers in from all over the West and Canada.

Kinetic racers deck their vehicles out in wildly eccentric themes, like an albino rhino, an ant that walks on articulated legs, a rocket and a big hamburger. Thompson's, which gets a new look each year, has variously been a dragon that opened its mouth and roared, surf-and-turf (a bull and a lobster), a silver armadillo and a dinosaur skeleton with crew in caveman skins.

His team uses professional artist Duane Flatmo of Eureka, Calif., and almost always wins the art prize, Thompson said.

The public goes nuts. It's so fun to watch people react to these completely bizarre machines, said Thompson. It's like Salvador Dali in motion.

To satisfy a requirement that racers be able to camp on the road in mid-race, all kinetic sculptures must be able to carry sleeping bags, food, water and toothbrushes. When under way, the machines often look like something out of Road Warrior. Thompson has his three toothbrushes screwed to the steering column.

Machines have to be fitted with pontoons or something to make them float, sometimes big tires, and are usually powered in water by paddles extending from wheels.

Kinetic road warriors learn by doing and observing, freely trading technical knowledge and inventions and making a point of not taking it all too seriously, Thompson said.

Swanson and Ponzoha began building the machines 10 years ago to enlighten drafting and engineering students as they took something from conception to production, then through the acid test of actually driving it, said Ponzoha.

They've taken machines to the Arcata races, winning as high as sixth place, but falling down on the art part. We're gearheads, not artists, said Ponzoha, who has brainstormed on Thompson's vehicle and served occasionally as pit crew.

Bob's machine is awesome, he noted. It takes a lot of tenacity to hone a design as nice as his. You have to be willing to go through the failures and try again. It's rare you get it right the first time.

The machines built by Ponzoha and Swanson cost about &

36;2,000; using junk parts, Swanson has built them for as little as &

36;250. The more lavish and artistic ones go over &

36;5,000.

For Thompson, the kinetic sculpture is not just a machine, but is more like a member of the family. It will be used to chauffeur his bride, Karen Mitchell, to the altar for their back-yard wedding in September.

Forest Creek Road resident Bob Thompson has one of kinetic sculpture racing?s more successful contraptions. Dressed up with Eureka, Calif., artist Duane Flatmo?s fanciful sculptures, His team frequently wins races and related awards. Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune Roy Musitelli