What’s over 3 metres tall, breathes fire and engages dozens of bicycle gears to cross land, sand and sea? A vehicle built to conquer California’s Kinetic Grand Championship. By James Vlahos

A 4-metre picnic basket blocks the road ahead of us, a towering bottle of cabernet jutting from the top and ants the size of kindergartners scaling the wicker sides. As the basket sits in traffic, a herd of human giraffes ““ spotted tights, papier- mâché heads ““ sweeps by. Then from behind comes the sound of clanking metal. I turn around to confront a silver sea monster on wheels. Front-mounted lobster claws chomp hungrily, dragon jaws on the roof open wide, and a long tongue of flame scorches the sky.

Such are the sights of the Kinetic Grand Championship, a three-day event on the northern California coast that is equal parts inventors’ showcase, artistic performance, and serious race. It’s the Daytona 500 meets Burning Man (a week-long “radical self-expression” event in the Nevada desert that climaxes in a bonfire topped by a giant wooden effigy). Using no motors, the picnic basket, the sea monster and three dozen other human-powered absurdities will travel 67 kilometres through the far north of California between the cities of Arcata, Eureka and Ferndale. Though they look like carnival floats on acid, the contraptions must be designed to drive over tar, dirt and sand dunes, and even to navigate moving waters. “Kinetics is about art, speed and engineering,” says Monica Topping, former president of the organisation that puts on the race. “It’s the triathlon of the art world.”

There are nearly a dozen kinetic races around the United States, all of them inspired by this event. It was launched in 1969 by local artists Hobart Brown and Jack Mays and fi rst won by a turtle that belched smoke and laid eggs. The event begins at Arcata’s main square, where thousands of spectators snap pictures and a marching band plays hits from the 1980s. A slice of cake creeps past a pod of dolphins. A gangster’s getaway car moves beside the space shuttle Endeavour. The Heroes of Gloryopolis rolls slowly along with a team of Marvel Comics-esque superheroes patrolling a metropolitan skyline. Ten pilots below pedal bikes welded to the remains of a Ford Ranger chassis. The machine was engineered by resident Carl Mueller, who, like many kinetic racers, has an almost compulsive desire to tinker with everything from Lego to vintage steam locomotives. “I was born with a wrench in one hand and a gear in the other,” he says.

And then there’s the kinetic sculpture that I’m helping to race. I hunker down in a putrid-green, three-wheeled dune buggy called Visualize Whirled Peas, or VWP for short. Decorated with dangling tennis balls and spinning pinwheels, it has one tyre up front and two in the back, and there’s a similar configuration of seats for the trio of pilots. To my right is VWP’s inventor, Mike Ransom, who built the contraption from donated dirt-track tyres, abandoned bikes and other dumpster-diving finds. Whether they are anti-car environmentalists or monstertruck fans, most racers, like Ransom, relish the challenge of turning trash into rolling treasure.

“How many bikes died to make that float?” a man on the street asks.

“Probably about six or seven,” Ransom says. Each VWP pilot has pedals underfoot and controls a set of either 18 or 21 bicycle gears, which in turn feed into six more gearing ranges. Ransom, a computer programmer at the University of California, Davis, boasts that VWP has 244 944 possible gearing combinations. “Rube Goldberg would be proud!” the man replies.

A Kinetic Kop, wearing the buttoned coat and tall hat of a 19th-century British police officer, approaches VWP. He checks that we have the toothbrushes, the horn, the 10-litre bucket and other items mandated by the gleefully arcane rules of the contest. The inspection ends, and at noon, a siren cuts through the air. Pedalling furiously and jockeying for position, Team VWP makes three laps around the square, then heads west out of town. The race is on.

Okay, be difficult. Ask why. Why would people spend hundreds of hours to create all-terrain racing sculptures? The obvious answer is because kinetic racing is fun, but the rationale goes deeper than that. Events such as the Kinetic Grand Championship attract both studio artists and grease-stained engineers with the same intoxicating lure: an oddball challenge whose arbitrary constraints inspire wonderfully unconventional solutions. The mandate that all entries be human-powered makes the race more accessible to students and hobbyists. And the no-engines rule gives the race a third component besides artistic design and mechanical engineering – human sweat. “I’ve always loved the physical, athletic part of the race,” says racer Duane Flatmo, a 30-time participant.

This year Flatmo rides in Bottom Feeders, the fire-breathing sea monster he created. An artist who is as comfortable with paint on canvas as he is with taking a blowtorch to steel, Flatmo has competed on the TV show Junkyard Wars and performed a musical number – playing a flamenco guitar with an electric eggbeater to strum the strings – on America’s Got Talent. He built Bottom Feeders with a dazzling array of recycled materials, from cupcake tins and colanders to irrigation equipment and pieces of aircraft wings. “I try to create a piece of eye candy, something that people just can’t help but get out their camera and take a picture of,” Flatmo says.

Bottom Feeders falls behind VWP as we pedal out of town into an agrarian landscape. Cows cluster against fences that line the two-lane road and stare at the sculptures passing by. Cruising atop oversize tyres, VWP passes a rickety white taco truck. Papier-mâché skeletons, one dressed as a bride and the other as a groom, sit in the front seats and grin toothily. Newlydeads, reads the sign over their heads.

A couple of hours later, after driving down a long stretch of beach with waves sliding up beneath the tyres, we turn inland and face a steep set of dunes. VWP makes it up the first one, but stalls midway up the second. No matter how much we strain against the pedals, the machine won’t move forward. The front wheel starts lifting up off the steep slope, and the whole contraption tilts dangerously backward. “Okay, that’s it!” Ransom calls, signalling for everyone to jump off. “We’re pushing.” After we reboard at the top of the hill, which is called Dead Man’s Drop, a judge asks if we want to scout the steep descent on foot. “Nope, we’ll be fine,” Ransom replies as we wheel over the sandy lip. And he’s right.

The next day opens with a short sojourn through Humboldt Bay. The Jeep, a black, 1½-ton monster pick-up with four-wheel drive and four-wheel steering, loses a pontoon 50 metres in and begins to capsize, causing at least one co-pilot to jump overboard, screaming. The Jeep was overbuilt by design, says its maker, Chris Gardner. “I looked at all the other sculptures and they’re awesome pieces of engineering, light and little, but they’re not rock crawlers,” the 21-year-old says. “I wanted to build a tank.”

I’m not comforted by his accident, nor by the conversation I had the day before with Dave Richards, a judge who was inspecting VWP. “You’d tell us if this thing was going to fall apart, right?” I asked.

“Oh, heck no,” he said. “We hope for sinkers.” But VWP crosses flawlessly. Styrofoam pontoons on each side of the craft keep us afloat. Paddle blades made from cut-up paint buckets and temporarily mounted on the wheels supply the propulsion.

Ransom is upset that VWP didn’t do better on the climb up Dead Man’s Drop, but is excited at how well we handled the water crossing. The strength of his reactions is a revelation: the inventors behind this rolling circus take their contraptions seriously. It isn’t that most participants are out to be the fastest on the course – one of the most coveted prizes is the Medio-CAR Award, given to the team that finishes exactly in the middle. Instead, artistic flair and engineering ingenuity are what’s valued. The race is not about who can get to Ferndale first, but who can get there best.

Late in the race, VWP pulls abreast of Bottom Feeders on a long hill. I look over at Flatmo; he looks over at me. We point at each other in mock menace, then both start pedalling madly. Dune buggy and sea monster trade leads for 30 metres, but then the sound of a popping chain comes from Bottom Feeders. They pull over for a quick repair as we laugh and continue onwards.

We reach the top of Loleta Hill, which punishes racers with one and a half kilometres of 7 per cent grade, and dismount to catch our breath. In the end, Team VWP will finish in the middle – not fast enough to win a top prize, nor average enough for the Medio-CAR Award. But Ransom is happy simply because his machine has held together. “Blood, sweat and gears,” he says to nobody in particular, and hops back aboard.

Crazy races
Bold tinkerers are turning ordinary objects into wholly original homebuilt vehicles. From bar stools to power tools, here are the weird and wacky ways DIYers are satisfying their need f or speed. By Katie Hendrick

Bar-Stool Races
Many have barked brazen words from atop a bar stool. But only the truly intrepid add skis and take the souped-up seat for a ride down a snowy slope. The stools must be at least 70 cm tall, and contestants have to stay seated for the 320-metre sprint. The sitting rule began in 2000 primarily for rider protection, though staying seated also lowers the centre of gravity, which increases stability and speed.

Collegiate Concrete Canoe Races
To create the concrete boats for the championship “America’s Cup of Civil Engineering”, competitors use concrete made of expanded glass spheres, multiple cementitious materials and specialised admixtures. Teams spend upward of 4 600 hours researching, constructing and training. “You’re out there on the lake with 20 other teams, and everyone’s waiting to see which canoes turn into submarines and which will take it away, usually determined by tenths of a second,” says Kyle Marshall, who competed for four years.

Power-Tool Drag Races
“Until you’ve tasted the thrill of victory and smelled ionised electricity and burning rubber, electrical insulation, and, sometimes, flesh, you really haven’t lived,” says Jon Larson of this annual powertool race. Racers turn electric concrete saws, angle grinders and other tools into makeshift motors that power skateboards, scooters, bikes and go-karts. All entrants must use recognisable mains-powered tools (up to 20 amps) that can be reused post-race.

CycleKarting
This group began as a handful of self-professed “disenfranchised, alienated and enlightened eccentrics” with a love for DIY projects and disdain for the status seeking of the automobile world. Often inspired by actual cars – including Bentleys, Millers and Bugattis – cyclekarts are nimble, elegant machines that can travel up to 60 km/h. And none are as expensive as they look. In fact, Michael Stevenson of the Association of MotoCycleKartistes says that the group has dismissed members who created more ostentatious designs. “They just didn’t get what it’s all about.”

Minimal Regatta
In Key West, Florida, this homebuilt-boat race allows only a few materials – a sheet of plywood, half a kilogram of fasteners, a roll of duct tape, two 50 x 100 beams – to create vessels that resemble everything from surfboards to Spanish galleons. Steve King, a 20-year veteran, enters for the gratification of “building something no one expects to float and knowing that sinking’s almost as fun as winning.”

The Great West End & Railroad Square Handcar Regatta
“For the delight and edification of all who attend,” this race challenges participants to relive the era when the railroad was king, while applying today’s style and gear. The only regulation: no motors, batteries or rubber bands. “Entries have to be human-powered,” says event co-creator Ty Jones, “which means a lot are based on bicycles that are cut up and reloaded back in different configurations.” Aside from the common presence of spokes, aesthetics vary widely. Jones has seen designs resembling traditional pump cars, mouse wheels, and even the ship from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.