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DESTRUCTION JUNCTION

At Robot Wars, combatants rush at one another with buzz saws and axes. And the crowd roars.

August 20, 1997|MARK CROMER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While Thorpe insists much of the emphasis of Robot Wars is on the ingenuity of robotic designs, the crowd was hungry for destruction--and the participants weren't going to let them down. The names on the robot roster summed it up: Mash-N-Go, Biohazard, FrenZy, Kill-O-Amp, Maximauler, Blendo, Destructomatic, No Love, Aggressor, Bad Monkey, Black Widow, Pretty Hate Machine, Turtle Roadkiller and the Beast Beneath Your Bed.

The entries of two young girls, who were part of a small female contingent, softened that edge a bit. One named her robot Fuzzy (with a smiling cat face painted on it), and the other dubbed her machine Dough Boy, after the Pillsbury icon. While the names were cute, the girls noted their machines were meant to be mean.

"I like destruction and I like building with metal," said Lisa Winter, a 10-year-old from Madison, Wis., who built Dough Boy. "I thought a blade would really do some damage, so I made a box and put a motor in it and gave it some really big blades. . . . I like destruction, but I also like crafts and cooking and sewing too."

Across the pit from Winter was David Koo, a Dartmouth law student who said he got the Ivy League school to give him an $800 grant to build his machine, the Little Green. Koo was trying to figure out how to repair the robot, which had gone up in smoke after a competitor slammed it so hard that the cooling fan flew out of it.

"I'm sure Dartmouth considers this money well spent," he said, pointing to the university's name emblazoned on the side of the robot. "Robots are the future, and these events are only going to get bigger and more violent. This is a learning process."

It was hard to tell at times what exactly was being learned--or taught--as the fans packed into steel bleachers watched a long parade of machines, some of them costing tens of thousands of dollars, obliterate each other, sometimes within seconds in their five-minute faceoffs. A few robots were dead on arrival, contraptions loaded with high-tech gear that refused to start once on the arena floor. "Those are obviously the smartest 'bots," one organizer cracked.

Not all of the machines were expensive Pentagon specials, however. Some of the real entertainment came from homespun robots like Grinch, which Will and Wendy McKinley built out of a Christmas tree stand, a drill motor, a pasta strainer, Legos and two hammers.

"Competing in this is like finals in college, without the long-range repercussions if you blow it," said Wendy, a 27-year-old biochemist at UC San Francisco. "This is really a tractor pull for cyber nerds."

One of the most intense displays of true ingenuity and art, which brought the crowd to its feet, was the "snake"--a huge metal serpent created by Mark Setrakian, who created some of the special effects for the film "Men in Black." Setrakian designed and built the metal beast just days before the event and was still testing its features the moment he slithered it out into the arena to face his opponent, a large mechanized scorpion.

The confrontation was actually one of the least violent, but the size of the robots and the animalistic drama of the snake wrapping itself around the scorpion proved a potent crowd-pleaser.

Then it was back to utter destruction. Perhaps the loudest roar came when the teddy bear-driven Jeep, looking more like a sacrificial lamb than a fighter, was nailed head-on by a saw-wielding robot, decapitating the Barbie doll on the hood. The head was presented to the victor.

"Can blood packs be too far off?" one event volunteer mused.

While several people said they would not attend an event that became "too human" in its carnage, Thorpe said he isn't opposed to making the battles more gory.

"I think it is totally irrelevant if we have stuffed animals or dummies attached to the robots. No one is suffering any pain and no one is getting hurt. That alone puts it above the blood sports of boxing, football and war," he said. "My only real problem with allowing blood packs is that liquids aren't allowed."

By the time the dust cleared and the debris was swept from the floor late Sunday night, Biohazard, last year's heavyweight victor--an unassuming, low-to-the-ground machine with a very effective scoop that flips over its opponents--defeated La Machine to remain king of the killer robot domain. Carlo Bertocchini of Belmont, Calif., took home $1,000 for winning that match and another thousand for winning the grand finale melee, a free-for-all among all the robots. He also got a steel and Lucite trophy, shaped like a giant phallus.

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