Kinetics Challenge Rickies

Published Friday, July 18, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

Do you miss The Rickies? Those self-styled paraders captivated Eugene Celebration audiences for a decade, until winning awards for humor, design and originality became routine. Routine is humor’s natural predator, so The Rickies slid into the safety of legend and lore, fondly remembered each September. They never revealed their true identities and claimed their motto was “Helping People Be Other People.”

But what if The Rickies added to their zaniness some other accoutrements? What if they built and sat upon human-powered sculptures that raced on streets and water, over sand and through mud? That would be a Kinetic Challenge. They would be in Corvallis.

I consider the Kinetic Challenge to be The Most Eugene Thing Not In Eugene. It’s part of this weekend’s annual daVinci Days Festival in Corvallis. It’s not to be missed.

I attended my first Kinetic Challenge in 1996. Start with a Tournament of Roses Parade-style float. Atop a ten-foot-tall fish, riding it like a cowboy, was a sculpture of a small man with a fishing pole. When I approached, I saw the iridescent scales of the fish were actually CDs. Clever. Then I got closer. They were those ubiquitous free AOL CDs that we were bombarded with back then. Brilliant.

I stood there agape, thinking two thoughts. Somewhere there was a grocery check-out lane that was at least temporarily AOL-promotion-free. And here in front of me was evidence of grown-ups with too much time on their hands.

Since then I have barely missed a Kinetic Challenge in Corvallis. I’ve attended similar races in Port Townsend, Washington; Klamath Falls; and Eureka, California. In Eureka, I met Hobart Brown, the man who started it all as a parade through nearby Ferndale on Mother’s Day in 1969. Brown is a competitor, a sculptor and a showman. He wondered what could be done with human power and ingenuity. Now Kinetic Sculptures are raced in half a dozen west coast towns, plus Denver, Baltimore, Australia, and Elsewhere. YouTube offers 152 choices under “Kinetic Sculpture Race.”

Software engineer Rahn Young brought the concept (or, as the Kineticists would prefer, “koncept”) to Corvallis in 1993. This weekend marks its krystal anniversary in Korvallis, featuring two dozen teams, more or less. Racers and judges will converge on Corvallis, coming from as far away as Ventura, California and the Canadian border.

The teams compete on many levels. Speed is only one consideration. Pageantry is equally important. Each team must perform an original song on Friday evening, introducing themselves and their sculptures to the audience. The racing portion begins on Saturday, after a noon parade. Each sculpture on Sunday must traverse 100 yards through a mud bog, half a mile down the Willamette River, then five more miles through the streets of Corvallis, always carrying a Teddy bear, just in case.

The prizes are minimal. Racers insist they do it “for the glory,” which is a shrewd way of saying they do it for no good reason. This is an Entirely Evitable Event.

But can’t the same be said about most of life? Doing something silly, just for the sake of it — isn’t that supremely human? Is falling in love any different? Enjoying a sunset?

In the past twelve years, I have seen human-sized hamster balls, demotorized lawn mowers, gyroscopic irrigation wheels, retrofitted playground equipment; surfboards, skateboards, and sailboats. Two years ago there was a stainless steel ant that attempted to march the race.

Corvallis boasts the highest percentage of PhDs of any town its size in America. But unlike in Eugene, their smart people build more than arguments and resumes. They make stuff.

Last year, the first-ever Eugene team ran away with an armful of prizes. Benjamin and LeAndera Mattson-Bell and their teenage children won prizes for art, engineering, and pageantry. They return this year as “Rat-Tattoo-Ee.”

Behind the scenes, one of the key organizers for the Kinetic Challenge is Eugene resident Jenette Kane. She’s been involved with Kinetics since 1978 in her home town of Eureka, and in Corvallis since moving to the Willamette Valley in 1998. She’s Lane Community College’s Customized Employee Training Manager, but don’t expect any of the racers to know that. They know her only as Goddess Jen-O — tunic, tiara and all.

How very Rickie-like.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) has been the emcee and color commentator for the Kinetic Challenge in Corvallis for the past eight years. Like everyone else in Eugene, he doesn’t get up to Corvallis often enough. He never was a Rickie, but he appreciates the confusion. He blogs.