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Kinetic konfusion 

Here she is, 2007's Rutabaga Queen! All hail Emma Breacain, aka Emma the Emchantress, crowned queen of the Kinetic Sculpture Race at a ceremony Friday night! "I'm so excited," her majesty said afterwards. "It's something I take very seriously. I put enough work into my campaign that most people would consider it insane."

Indeed. For most of us, the Kinetic Sculpture Race has been a sometimes interesting and often amusing annual ritual that's descended on Humboldt County for the last 39 years. But for others it goes way, way beyond that. The KSR has a Rocky Horror-like following, and maybe that's why it has maintained for nearly four decades. Certainly the cult appeal of the race is what made it happen this year, after it looked like all else was lost.

It's perhaps possible that there may be one person reading this who has no idea what the Kinetic Sculpture Race is. So just for that person, an instant primer: The Kinetic Sculpture Race is a three-day event in which contestants race human-powered vehicles ("sculptures") from Arcata to Ferndale over land, sand and water. Contestants are judged on the artistic and engineering merit of their sculptures, as well as speed. There are numerous ancillary events, of which the crowning of a "Rutabaga Queen" is one. The whole thing is framed in a kitschy, pun-laden aesthetic. The thing was more or less invented way back when by Ferndale artist Hobart Brown, who is generally described as "an eccentric."

Brown controlled the race for many years after its founding until, a few years ago, a new nonprofit called the Humboldt Kinetic Association took it over. A few months ago, a financial dispute broke out between Brown and the HKA, and it looked like the race wasn't going to happen. Then Ferndale's Ellin Beltz, a Kinetic Sculpture devotee, inherited some money and settled the dispute, returning rights to the race to Brown, who lately has been very ill.

But the race this year is nevertheless being put on by a whole new organization -- "Kinetic Universe," which was founded by three former Rutabaga Queens. Kinetic Universe is taking pains to use none of the intellectual property associated with Brown's organization. The name of the race has been subtly changed to "Kinetic Grand Championship." So why the changes, when the legal disputes over ownership seem to have been settled?

Apparently because they have not been settled -- not quite. Between Brown and the HKA, everything is copacetic. But Brown has another lawsuit pending against his former caregiver. That suit is set be heard on Friday. And though ownership of Kinetic is not at issue, the Kinetic Universe people thought they should play it safe by sidestepping the issue entirely in case the suit were to metastasize.

"Basically, the court day for the lawsuit is the day before the race. And we said, `Oh, we've got to do something or the race is going to die,'" said Arcata Mayor Harmony Groves, the 2006 Rutabaga Queen and a member of Kinetic Universe. Groves added that her organization has been OK'd by Brown: "We've gotten the blessing, and we've been careful to include everyone in the Kinetic Kingdom in this year's race."

The new Rutabaga Queen, for one, is just happy that things are moving forward. "This is such a big year for the race," Emma the Emchantress said. "There was so much fear that it wouldn't happen. So it's really exciting to be a part of it."

Kinetic Universe's Shaye Harty said that the Kinetic Universe people fully expect to re-merge with the Brown organization by next year. Meanwhile, the 39th Annual Kinetic Grand Championship Race kicks off at noon Saturday on the Arcata Plaza.

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Hank Sims

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