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CENTERPIECE: Ventura County

Art on the Move

Race will put athletics, engineering, creativity to the test.

October 08, 1998|LEO SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Around noon Saturday, a yellow septic tank disguised as a submarine will descend a 5-foot-tall mound of sand on the beach near the Ventura Promenade. It will travel two miles down the shoreline and make a beeline for the Ventura Keys.

At 2 p.m. Sunday, vehicles resembling a rolling shark, a 36-wheel school bus and a giant clam will take dips in the ocean, return to land and zigzag down the southern end of Seaward Avenue.

It's all par for the bizarre course of the inaugural Ventura Kinetic Sculpture Race--an offbeat multi-terrain competition of human-powered vehicles, intended to challenge competitors athletically, artistically and mechanically.

The assignment for each racer is to create an eye-catching vehicle that over a two-day period and with minimal on-course alteration can handle a 12-mile route covering paved city streets, dirt roads, sand and ocean. No pushing or pulling of vehicles is allowed. Entries--individuals or teams--will be judged on speed, ingenuity (flotation and drive systems) and art (color, humor and kinetic attributes).

"The vehicles run the spectrum from pure art to pure mechanics," said race organizer Riki Strandfeldt. "It's something an engineer would love. If you're mechanical, you would love it because you're welding and configuring something with chunks of metal, gears and chains. If you're artistic, you would love it, and if you're an athlete, you would love it. You really have to be in good physical condition."

The Ventura event, a benefit for the Turning Point Foundation--which provides services for the mentally ill--is inspired by a similar kinetic competition in Humboldt County. The annual Northern California race began in 1969 more as a quirky experiment with a tricycle than as a test of skill. But 30 years later it has grown into an internationally recognized, three-day, 38-mile endurance trek.

Ventura's version isn't quite that demanding, but it should be a test of stamina, patience, teamwork and, perhaps most importantly, wit. "You have to keep your humor about the whole thing," Strandfeldt said. "Anybody that's grumpy has got to get happy. The rules encourage people to approach the race with good humor, in a light-hearted manner and just try their hardest. It can be a humbling experience."

The race will begin at 11 a.m. Saturday at the intersection of Main and California streets in downtown Ventura. Contestants will pedal (or roll) their way down Main Street onto the bicycle trail along the Ventura River to the promenade.

About half an hour later, racers will begin arriving at the 5-foot-tall man-made sand dune. To climb the hill and continue along a two-mile stretch of sand, pilots and their pit crews will make the first structural changes to their vehicles.

"I think the sand is probably the most difficult [terrain] to figure out," Strandfeldt said. "They have to develop a fairly low gearing system where they are pedaling quickly but the wheel is moving slowly. It's one of the places the engineering is judged. When you start getting to the point where you have 60 gears, people are usually bumping up to more industrial-type chaining, pirating something off a motorcycle or a sit-down lawn mower."

Racers will exit the sand at New Bedford Court and transition their vehicles back to pavement for a ride along the streets of the Ventura Keys. The first day of racing will end about 3 p.m. at Ventura Harbor Village, where entrants will visit with the public and pitch a tent for the evening. Sunday's events will begin at 10 a.m. with a test of engineering skills as racers launch their kinetic sculptures into the water off Ventura Harbor Village.

"At that point they move to their pontooning--you don't want to be paddling with an oar for 2 1/2 miles--so they may attach their bike pedals to a propeller, like a paddle wheel," Strandfeldt said.

Vehicles will exit the water at Harbor Cove Beach between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. and work their way up to Spinnaker Drive and then to Pierpont Boulevard. They will turn down Seaward Avenue for a brief spin through the street islands and then head back onto Pierpont. The racers will arrive at Seaside Park, slog through a mud pile and reach the finish line between 2:30 and 5 p.m.

"The race can be very technical, the way people come together and form as a team," Strandfeldt said. "I see it as a real mental exercise. You have to learn to tolerate and appreciate everybody on your team."

The lineup of racers will feature about seven veterans of the Humboldt kinetic race, including the folks with the yellow septic tank. About a dozen local entrants also will brave the elements.

For Mark Zeller and his team of fifth- and sixth-graders from First Christian Church of Newbury Park, the race is an opportunity to practice fun and teamwork in a safe atmosphere.

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