THAT EXERCISE IN ZANINESS CALLED THE KINETIC Sculpture Race is now in its 30th year, grown from its beginning as a short run along Ferndale's Main Street into its present grueling 38-mile race from Arcata to Ferndale over the three-day Memorial Day weekend. It has brought out tourists in droves, along with scads of journalists and television people, and during the 1980s it was calculated to have generated close to $2 million in revenue for Humboldt County.
In recent years, however, it has suffered an embarrassment of troubleseverything from breakaway factions to threatened lawsuits, from the loss of two of its most generous sponsors, Calistoga Water Co. and Yakima, to an abortive attempt by the now-defunct Kinetic Arts Foundation (KFA) to take over the leadership. The troubles are manifested in the declining number of racers: From a high of 99 in 1981, they were down to about 35 last year.
In the thick of the fray of course is Hobart Brown, the Ferndale art gallery owner, who describes himself as the race inventor and "keeper of the philosophy." Time was, he was known as the "Glorious Founder" of a race that has spawned copycats, with Hobart's encouragement and tutelage, in such far-flung places as Australia and Poland, not to mention such American outposts as Lubbock, Texas; Corvallis, Ore.; Port Townsend, Wash.; Boulder, Colo.; and, most recently, Baltimore, Md.
But "glorious" is not an adjective you are likely to hear today from some of the racers airing their disgruntlement with their colorful leader.
June Moxon, who has been in this race for 17 years, said recently: "We will race, but we won't help him. This race is bigger than one person. Nobody wants to help after a while. We need some good people to help, and I don't think he'll ever let them."
As Moxon tells the story, the brouhaha started three years ago. "He told me he was going to cancel the race one year, and then he took off for Australia." The racers, she said, then asked Sydney Woodson, who had helped Hobart the year before, to put on the race. "So Hobart came back from Australia a couple months before the race was scheduled, as he always does, and he just had a conniption fit."
"The racers," she went on, "gave him $4,000, and he's still screaming that they owe him money. We thought we were saving him from having to put (the expenses) on his credit card. Then we just washed our hands of it."
But Moxon, who has always had a warm spot in her heart for the "Glorious Founder"one remembers how she was near tears some years back when she spoke of his crippling arthritisthen softened that rebuke to say: "Of course, he'll be the figurehead. He'll always be the figurehead."
Hobartand almost everyone is on a first-name basis with himdenies going into any conniption fit. But he also makes clear there is no love lost between him and Sydney Woodson.
"She's negative, very negative," he asserts. "She was the director who caused all that trouble."
Woodson (who now goes by the married name of Munguia) said that she and two cohorts, John Corbett and Janet DePace, formed the Kinetic Arts Foundation in December 1995 and dissolved it just the past year.
"No, we never tried to get rid of Hobart," she said, in denial of accusations made by some race volunteers, but concedes that they "did do away" with the race's "loser" award, a bone of contention with some racers.
She also notes that KAF had a contract with Hobart (which is something that Hobart did not mention in recent interviews), and they paid him$3,946 in 1996, plus $1,850 to help him pay off his debts, and $3,900 in 1997 plus signing over to him a Buick that had been donated to their group.
"We tried to negotiate a contract for `98," she adds, "but his demands for payment were out of the ballpark for us."
In two interviews with Hobart he holds forth from the second-floor living quarters cum museum of antiques above the art gallery in the 100-year-old Victorian that he has owned for some 30 years.
"I bought it for $10,000," he says. "And I only owe $90,000 on it now," he adds with a laugh. "I borrow against it."
That building, he notes, has been used as a saloon, a hotel, stage depot, city hall and brothelnot necessarily at the same time. Hobart likes to keep up on history like that.
He is dressed in his usual every-day costume: a collarless white shirt, buttoned up to the top and the sleeves ripped off at the elbow, black vest, faded blue jeans and a black cowboy hat. At 65, there is a tinge of gray to his dark brown hair, which straggles down to his shoulders. He has rosy cheeks that give him a kind of gamin look, and blue eyes, and it's fun to see them light up when he laughs. Of course, the arthritis is apparent from his gnarled hands and the slight limp when he walks.
Ask him how the arthritis is, and he'll tell you, with his ready wit: "It's doing great. I'm doing terrible, but it's doing great." He cracks himself up.
It bugs him when people come up to him and say, "I see that you're physically challenged." He doesn't buy that political correctness stuff. "It's like an insult. I say, `No, I've got arthritis; I'm crippled.' I'd rather be noticed for what I really am, who I am. Rather than hear them say, `Hey, there's a crippled guy.' I'd like to hear them say, `There's a happy guy.'"
For the most part he apparently is, although he's certainly aware of the myriad troubles with the race.
"The problem with this race is that it's not sponsored," he says. "We can't get the money."
(That was not apparently a problem for the Kinetic Arts Foundation, according to Sydney Woodson-Munguia. "We had a really good organization," she says, "and really great sponsorsYakima and Calistoga, the North Coast Co-op, St. Joseph Health Systems and KXGO.")
Hobart says they lost Calistoga and Yakima because "they wanted to run the race; they wanted to turn the race around, wanted to make it a two-day race. They had all kinds of things they wanted to do, and I was not willing to do that."
He does have, however, what he hopes will be his ace in the hole. He wants to winbrace yourselfthe Nobel Peace Prize, and has actually gotten hold of a professor in the psychology department of Humboldt State University, Richard A. Langford, to submit his nomination. You have to say this about Hobarthe may be slight of stature physically, but his chutzpah is gigantic.
"If I get the Nobel Prize," he says, "I'm going to use the interest rate to run the races from now on. And I'll take out that $1,000 a month for the gallery as a salary."
It takes $2,700 a month to run his art gallery, he explains, and $1,000 of that goes to race expenses.
"The telephone is one of our biggest items," he says, "and then there's Fed Ex. At the beginning of the race, that's when it really gets steep. A big outlay of money. For instance, we've gotta pay for portable toilets ahead of time this year because that last group didn't pay them. So they don't trust us anymore. Insurance runs about $1,800 and the toilets are about the same."
That "last group" was California Backwoods, a singing group "from up in the mountains behind Garberville, " as Hobart describes it.
"They did a good job," he allows, "but at the end it kind of went sour for some reason. At the end we broke communication. Something didn't go right. ... They got tired."
He adds, "It takes somebody who's as mentally determined as I am. Which is a nice way of saying `stubborn.'"
The race ownership is vested in a corporation, which Hobart says he owns. There are, he says, "probably" about eight other stockholders who "own a piece of it."
Hobart, one notes, tends to a certain vagueness about some of these details, which may explain in part at least why some suggest that he is disorganized.
As one observer puts it: "He's a very creative person, but he can't tie his shoe, you know?"
Duane Flatmo, a talented artist and race veteran, prefers the word "mismanagement." Whatever. "Technically, you can say we're not organized," Hobart concedes, but that's "because we always work up to the last minute."
Which leads to the phrase "collective consciousness," which has been used to explain the race philosophy in Hobart's book. But what does it mean? He explainswell, sort of anyway: "What that means is: If somebody comes up with an idea and says, `Let's run it backwards.' Then we'll mull it around the group and see if it's alive. Now that group may be anybody who just stumbled in at the last minute. Well, whatever ... that collective consciousness, see, that's bigger than any one person there."
Um-huh. Then Hobart adds: "The rest of the race is run dictatorially democratic." It's not something you want to pursue with Hobart.
As for his own personal history, he moved up from Los Angeles in 1962, with the second of his two wives. (He fathered two children in each of those marriages, and three of the four live in the area. One son, in fact, Michael Von Braun, is a Ferndale City Council member.)
Hobart's second wife was Maggie McDaniels, who formerly kept the books for the Ferndale Repertory Theater. Obviously, she had to be better organized than Hobart. They were wed in Los Angeles, and Hobart recalls: "We had a tough time finding a church that would marry us of us was religious."
He goes on: "It caused me to do something when I got here though. I became a mail order minister. Now I marry lots of people. (By "lots" he means "about 20-some.") If they want to get married with one foot in the water or something like that, in some river or in the ocean, whatever they want to do, I'll go along with it."
The first Kinetic Sculpture Race in 1969 came about more or less because of a bet on who could build the best (or weirdest) machine. Stan Bennett, who has a kinetic sculpture shop in Ferndale, put out a booklet in 1975 talking about those early-day "crazy contraptions." There were just five guys in the first race. Hobart's vehicle was called a pentacycle, which was "a sort of tricycle, but with five wheels and painted red." The race winner was Bob Brown, a Eureka metal sculptor, whose vehicle was a 10-foot turtle.
Hobart was surprised at the crowd that turned out for the race. It was nothing compared to the hundreds who line up on Memorial Day now to see the finish of the three-day race on Ferndale's Main Street today, but still it worried the City Hall people about possible crowd accidents. Then the Chamber of Commerce also objected that there were "too many people."
In about its seventh year the race established the present route from the Arcata Plaza to Ferndale's Main Street. The machines have gotten bigger and crazier all the time.
For this year's race, Hobart expects about 40 to 60 entrants.
Hobart entered his last race three years ago with a newly-waxed and shined up Quagmire Queen, which now has a place in Ferndale's Kinetic Museum.
There are obviously still some holdouts among the racers. One is Alan Krause, who on May 1 ran what he called his own Extreme Kinetic, a one-day run over the whole 38-mile route. A World Championship, he called it. He was the only entrant.
Krause, 39, raced in 22 consecutive Kinetic Sculpture Races, but no more "not until he (Hobart, that is) honors the race."
He said, "It's become a parade. Certainly not a race. Speed doesn't matter. It's really sad what it's come to ... The `loser' award? It's not funny." And he blames it all on "the misperceptions of Ferndale," by which he means "any of the insanity that comes from Ferndale." By which he means Hobart Brown.
Hobart's obviously been over that route before, especially about the criticism of the "loser" awards.
"What I would like people to understand," he says, "is that losing is not bad. It's a loser's award, and that's a good place to be you outnumber the winners, by what? Ninety-nine percent."
And despite all the turmoil, he promises that "the race is going to go on." He adds: "I'm doing everything in my power, trying to find some group that will run it altruistically. If they can make money, I think it's great, but run the race and have it continue with this same philosophy."
One of Hobart's stalwart volunteers, Christine Rising, who describes herself as "a Kinetic mom" and who's been involved with it for 16 years, takes a benign view of the trouble stirred up in the past few years.
"There can be disruption wherever you look for it," she observes. "Now it's time to be nice, get back in the sand box and play nice-nice. There's a real special mystique about the Kinetic Sculpture Race. These people are out there having fun."
Another longtime race volunteer has this to say: "Yes, there are problems, but there are always problems. That's part of the fun, too. Forget the politics. I'm just going to have fun, and if somebody wants to squabble, let them squabble."
You figure it has to be fun, or why else would these dedicated racers spend countless hours building their machines?
Three regulars you can find sometimes at all hours of the day and night, working at the kinetic lab that Yakima makes available to them are June Moxon, her partner Ken Beidleman and Duane Flatmo. June, for instance, practically bubbles over with enthusiasm when she tells you about her "pink elephant" entry this year it's "fluorescent, pink and furry." Ken's working on his "warthog," and Duane is building a six-person machine that he calls "The King and I." There'll be a king puppet at the front of the "royal coach," waving at the crowd.
This will be Flatmo's 18th year in the race. He was a part of the now-dissolved Kinetic Arts Foundation, and he has obviously been troubled by the infighting that's gone on. "We took an oath that we didn't want to steal the race (from Hobart). He tended to think we were ... What I'm hoping for is the Phoenix to rise from the ashes. The bottom line is that I love the race; I'm just out there to have fun."
Time to forget the squabbling, and let the last word on that go to June Moxon.
"Everybody ought to just leave Hobart alone and do their job," she said. And let the "kinetic madness" begin.
1. In 1994 the Yakima "KingFish" raced for the glory. (photo by Patrick Cudahy)
2. Hobart Brown, the founder of the kinetic race (photo by Patrick Cudahy)
3. Duane Flatmo and June Moxon work on thisyear's machines in the Yakima kinetic sculpture lab. (photo by Mark Lufkin)
4. "There's a real special mystique about the Kinetic Sculpture
Race. These people are out there having fun." Christine Rising
(photo by Patrick Cudahy)
5. 1994 Field's Landing Launch. (photo by Patrick Cudahy)
6. 1992, Ali Krause in "Top Banana" (photo by Patrick Cudahy)
7. 1973, "Great Bandini Bros." (courtesy of Kinetic Sculpture archives)
8. 1997, "Dragoon" crew at the finish line. (photo by Patrick Cudahy)
9. (early '70s) Don Bent's "Funtastic Music Machine." (courtesy of Kinetic Sculpture archives)
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