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Against the Tide:
Hobert Brown fights to preserve his zany race

2003 Kinetic Sculpture Race Map & Schedule


Hobart in his workshopFERNDALE ARTIST HOBART BROWN [photo at right] BECAME THE "GLORIOUS FOUNDER" of the Kinetic Sculpture Race 35 years ago when he raced six of his friends one block down the town's Main Street, riding a converted tricycle, a contraption he called "The Pentacycle." [photo below left shows the Pentacycle in the Kinetic Sculpture Museum.] The race has since grown from that one-block dash to an Arcata-to-Ferndale trek across 38 miles of land, water, sand and mud. And the sculptures have become increasingly elaborate and wacky. Through it all, Hobart has remained at the helm. That is, until recently.

Last year Hobart sold his glorious race to a nonprofit group called Humboldt Kinetic Association. I met with him the other day in his studio/living room, on the second floor of the 1877 Victorian that Viola McBride sold him 40 years ago, to talk about the transition.

Hobart, whose crippling rheumatoid arthritis forced him to give up Kinetic competition 11 years ago, insisted he's still very much "in the wings," valiantly fighting to preserve the integrity of the race. In fact, according to Hobart, his biggest struggle these days is trying to keep things the same. "You don't change the smile on the Mona Lisa," he said.

He becomes especially distressed when anyone suggests making the race easier. For example, there's recently been talk of changing the bay crossing so the racers would be going with the tide instead of against it. "Can you believe it?" he asked me. "We've always gone against the tide! Where's the challenge in going with it?"

And challenge is the name of the game, as far as Hobart is concerned. He said there are race elements designed strictly "for the racer" that need to be preserved, elements like the Slimy Slope. "There's always talk of closing or moving that part of the course, but the racers need it," he said.

Now, I always figured the purpose of the Slimy Slope was to let the racers play in the mud for a while, but Hobart said it's one of the most difficult parts of the course. Apparently it gives racers the opportunity to experience those "kinetic moments," when racer and machine become one entity, pitted against nature.

Hobart recalled a personal "kinetic moment" in 1982, when he decided to launch his People Powered Bus into the bay (against the tide) despite the 60-mph winds blowing that Memorial Day weekend. The harrowing event was captured on film by CBS's Good Morning America and was included in It'll Have Blinking Eyes and A Moving Mouth," the wonderful, award-winning documentary by New York filmmakers Jeb Bergh and Steve Fox. "Waves were crashing over the machine," Hobart recalled, still looking like a little boy at age 69. "My team was a little worried, but I wasn't. I knew the Coast Guard would save us if the bus sank."

pentacycle on display in museumThat was the first year June Moxon participated in the race, as part of Hobart's team. "We were facing death out there!" June told him when the bus and exhausted team members arrived safely on the south spit. He asked if she thought the course should be changed. "Don't you dare!" she responded vehemently.

Twenty-one years later, June is still racing, in her very own quirky, beautiful, yet carefully engineered kinetic sculptures, made out of chicken wire, papier-maché and a sprinkling of fairy dust. She agreed the course needs to remain challenging. "We don't want it to be a bike race. It's the triathlon of the art world," June said, dead serious, looking taller than her 5 feet 2 inches.

While the race evolved considerably over the years, the Glorious Founder insisted the changes were merely fine-tuning Mona Lisa's smile. "If you start picking at any work of art, you risk destroying it."

That said, Hobart still has a few ideas for improving the race, including a "flying element," which, to be honest, I didn't quite understand, even though he drew a diagram on a paper napkin for me. He also acknowledged he's relieved not to be handling administration of the Race, and the financial burden that goes with it. "I'm an artist, so I wasn't very good at that part of it," he admitted.

In fact, Hobart said he still owes $45,000 on the Victorian he bought from Viola for $10,000, because of a string of mortgages he took out over the years to keep the race going. Hobart's Gallery is on the bottom floor of the building, downstairs from the studio he's worked in for the past 40 years. With its redwood walls and toys everywhere, it looks something like a boy's tree-house in Never-Neverland.

Bob Iorg, a friend of Hobart's, dropped by while I was there and offered to show me the "secret rooms" above the second floor. Hobart led the way to a steep spiral staircase, with steps clearly too vertical and narrow for a grown-up to climb.

"I'll take you up," Bob said. Uh. I looked at Hobart, and knew he wished his disability didn't prevent him from taking the lead. Instead I followed Bob (who's older than I am) up the stairs. There's just something about Hobart that brings out the kid in everyone.

After safely exploring the hidden rooms (since they're secret all I can tell you is walking on a plank was involved) I told Hobart how much I liked his studio and the gallery downstairs, adding they're both "very Humboldt County."

"You couldn't pay me a nicer compliment," he said, eyes misty. "I'm so emotional these days," he added. I asked if it was hard for him to sell his race.

"It was harder last year. But I learned about letting go when I sold my first sculpture, a long time ago. That's what art teaches you," he said. "It's the same with your kids," (he has four), "you just do the best you can and send them on out into the world."

Hobart also assured me he has plenty of ideas to keep him occupied, including a (real) flying saucer, powered by something called "gyroscopic procession," and a scientific method of proving the existence of past lives. Oh, and there's "Wheeled Angels," a comic book he's working on (with an Australian publisher) about a little boy in a wheelchair who's a superhero, a project I'd say is right up Hobart's alley.

He also plans to remain involved in the Kinetic Sculpture Race, in the wings, making sure the racers still get to go against the tide.

The Great Arcata To Ferndale
Grand Championship Kinetic Sculpture Race

will be rolling through Humboldt County with its annual display of creative craziness, this Memorial Day weekend, May 24, 25 & 26. Now in its second year, the not-for-profit Humboldt Kinetic Association will, once again, be running the show with an eye on improving spectator accessibility, while maintaining the traditions of this grand event.

Expect the traditional fun of the brake test on the Arcata Plaza (11 a.m.), the noon start, and all the thrills and spills of "Dead Man's Drop" (about 1:00) on Saturday. Remember, the plaza gets very busy, so show up early for the best views. And don't forget the sunscreen and mosquito repellant for the walk out to the drop.

Sunday will see the racers spending more time in the bay this year! After entering the bay under the Samoa Bridge (11:00,) these water-bound wonders will be peddling and paddling close to 2 miles before exiting the water at the Schneider dock (south gate, 990 W. Waterfront Drive). Spectators who are not watching the vehicles launch will want to keep an eye on the "F" street area, where
we hope to throw a few new curves at the racers.

Also new this year will be the treacherous "Captain Morgan's Slew" on Monday. After years of dastardly deeds and treacherous tricks on Slimy Slope, a new route has been chosen. But will this narrow, winding waterway turn out to be safe, or a pirate's trap? Expect the racers (those who survive) to begin making their way into Ferndale at about 1:00.




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