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Gentlemen, Start Your Power Saws! 

Power Tool Drag Races. What else do you need to know?

Wednesday, Apr 24 2002
"Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!" The childhood echo of radio ads for monster-truck rallies, gun shows, and WWF matches drowns out every other thought as we wind our way through the industrial maze just east of Bayshore Boulevard: Flower, Loomis, Newcomb, Toland, and, finally, McKinnon Street, home of Ace Auto Dismantlers, the empyreal terminus of every kinetic-sculpture builder, mechanical-art welder, and fancifully deluded gearhead in the greater Bay Area. We've been waiting for three months and, at last, we are in earshot of the Power Tool Drag Races, an event sponsored by QBOX (presenters of this coming October's International Mechanical, Kinetic, and Electronic Arts Festival) and conjured by Jim Mason and the Shipyard, a machine-arts collective in Oakland. Lynyrd Skynyrd blares from unseen loudspeakers, overwhelming the sounds of the nearby highway. A swarm of motorcyclists speeds down McKinnon and screeches to a halt, lifting a cloud of greasy dust while brandishing leather-clad fists in victory. Trucks and artcars and barely moving automotive heaps stand double-parked on the wide street; some of the bigger panel trucks serve as bleacher seating for folks too lazy to stand or too cheap to pay, and they kick their feet like little kids as they peer over the junkyard fence and point at things with cans of beer. Someone shouts, "Escape from Detroit!" as a man in an eye patch makes his way to the ticket table. Other shouts and hollers and occasional pops and explosive poofs penetrate the roar of motors and Southern fried rock, offering a hint of the family mayhem just on the other side of the fence.

Inside the junkyard, plumes of fire erupt amid spectators pressed between piles of old tires, heaps of bent steel, and stacks of mangled cars. Some in the crowd (though surprisingly few) have safety goggles and ear protection; most wear bluejeans, tank tops, leathers, or miniskirts with giant platform boots. But for a couple of pregnant housewives and one grandmother, it's a hard-racing crowd.

In the "pit," more than 30 power-tool crews hunch over their creations, wiping sweat and grease from their brows while the two parallel 50-foot-long wooden tracks, bounded by 6-inch-tall wooden containing strips, are raised on blocks of wood. An urgent request for a level from the track crew breaks through a rousing Judas Priest anthem; meanwhile, a chariot pulled by a disembodied pair of meticulously constructed robotic legs plods past, carrying a man in a straw hat and goggles and a sexy clown in pinstriped overalls.

"Ever held a flamethrower?" asks a purveyor of Bonefire, an innocent-looking silver staff that actually serves as a personal flamethrower. The crowd backs away as I surmise which is the business end. With a chuckle, the man takes back his "fire torch" and sends a small blaze into the air.

"Better stick with the cotton candy," suggests a nearby spectator, but one look at a woman in torn fishnets adroitly twirling webs of pink confection around her paper cone convinces me that I'd have just about as much luck spinning sugar as throwing flame.

In the pit are workbenches where belt sanders, electric drills, routers, circular saws, weed whackers, and nail guns have been twisted, corrupted, and manipulated to fulfill the misshapen fantasies of their possessors.

Twenty-nine-year- old Ryon Marc Gesink looms over his creation, running "safety" checks and tightening screws on the "Slave to Speed," a demonic contraption formed by four Bosch electric drills, four circular saw blades, two car batteries, the partial spine of a large animal, a small cow skull, a skateboard deck, and the action figures of Jake and Elwood Blues.

"I gave it a test run yesterday at the Shipyard," says Gesink, who looks like a feral roadie from a punk rock boy band. "It almost killed a dog. Goes like 500 miles an hour. Bones and the Blues Brothers -- what else do you need?"

Bob Schneeveis, creator of the "Walking Man" (the über-futuristic robot-leg-drawn chariot) and "Flaming Bunnies," a bicycle cart powered by an old worm-drive power saw and adorned by an assortment of stuffed rabbits, gleefully explains his inventions.

"This one is called 'Flaming Bunnies' for a reason," says Schneeveis, lifting his straw hat to reveal the singed remnants of his white eyebrows and hair. "It was left over from the old shopping-cart racing days. Only took a few hours; the sprockets drop right in where the blade goes in the saw. It was easy."

The "Walking Man," which accurately simulates the human step, is another story.

"You can't worry about money or women or family when you're working on something like that," says Schneeveis, who designs specialized tools for neurobiological research at Stanford. "Luckily, I live alone, my children are grown, and my house is almost paid off. And, since my kids are showing no signs of producing grandchildren, this is it. Actually, it would take less time and money to make a real human, and babies teach themselves to walk. But they can't pull your houseboat across the desert, now can they?"

"Can I still enter the race?" asks Sunnyvale's Scott Anderson, whose wife cradles a belt sander he calls "Hell Kitty."

"He decided to enter today," she says, shaking her head in bemusement. "Took him three hours to put it together. We'll see." She sets "Hell Kitty" next to a circular saw adorned with a stuffed basset hound chasing a softball. Nearby is a Dremel-brand electric multitool attached to a radio-controlled car chassis; the entry is called "The Eliminator."

Johnny Pontiac and Johnny Hell, the official announcers for The Shipyard International Speedway (at Ace), appear on the sagging, glass-strewn rooftop of the junkyard office shanty to start "20 minutes of open-track fucking around." I position myself inside a greasy truck tire, next to a gaggle of kids munching on hot dogs and eyeing the vodka snow-cones served by a gravel-voiced desert satyr named Flash. Pontiac unfolds a thick bundle of papers and begins to read the disclaimer, sputtering over words like "insurance" and "liability" while zipping past "death," "dismemberment," "personal injury," and "trauma." As the race flags "hit the thighs" of Bill the Junkman's alter ego, Belinda, they're off.

The "Super Stock" entries, off-the-shelf power tools allowed only stock attachments and extra wheels for stability, gather at the two wooden tracks. In pairs, they are plugged into 50-foot extension cords and sent ripping down the course, the only stopping mechanism being a loss of power when the cords are yanked from their sockets. (Pontiac suggests that spectators who insist on putting their legs in front of the protective wall of tires are, in fact, protecting the tires from the fast-moving saw blades.)

After a test run, an empty beer bottle is duct-taped to the front of Team Diablo's belt sander, an attempt to correct a leftward veer that has continued despite the best efforts of a tiny stuffed-monkey jockey. Even with the aid of cutting-edge beer-bottle technology, Team Diablo is no match for a circular saw mounted to a skateboard deck at a 30-degree cant ("Less surface tension," marvels Pontiac), or for No. 1134, a huge vintage Skilsaw stabilized by a steel rod and wheel (a contraption that Pontiac predicts will win the "Machine Most Likely to Get Its Maker Laid" award, a stained glass-encrusted chain saw). "Teddy Bears' Tragic Picnic," a power saw that utilizes bears as bumpers, is a huge crowd favorite as it sends wood chips flying and bedtime buddies careening to certain death, but hardly anything matches the speed and graceful simplicity of 10-year-old Ariel Spear's unembellished belt sander, which soars off the end of the track, causing the Shipyard Happyland Pep Squad, a litter of ragged yet unabashed cheerleaders who line the junkyard crane, to erupt into pelvic thrusts and mop head-waving genuflections. The crowd roars and Spear, in her fashionable camouflage shorts, leopard-skin shirt, and tiny purple backpack, smiles knowingly.

"Usually, on weekends, I just ride my bicycle around my neighborhood in the Sunset," she states demurely, waiting for her scientist father to race his circular saw. "I like to be by myself, mostly, but the belt sander moves pretty fast."

Next come the "Open Track Racers," modified power tools with multiple motors. Pontiac jokingly requests that volunteers lay their bodies across the end of the track during the saw segment of the race; the volunteers (had there been any) would have to fear only every fourth racer. Most entries stall or get stuck in the track.

"Just a typical day at the races," says Pontiac, "a lot of waiting, a little racing."

"Slave to Speed" stops halfway down the track. While trying to free it, Gesink mistakenly breaks off the front chassis, goring himself on a circular saw blade. His day is over. Pontiac unceremoniously directs him to the "Healing Arts and Body Work Massage" tent run by Jerico Reece, but not in time for Gesink to win the Purple Wrench, an award for the first injury of the day, which is given to one of the creators of the "Bernz-O-Matic," a canister of propane ignited by a nail gun.

During "Modifieds," a competition of single-motor, human-"driven" machines that race across the junkyard tarmac, Team Alexander convinces a leather-clad pal with a crash helmet to lie across a 1930s Thor rotary pneumatic saw powered by 2,000 psi of nitrogen, so it might be entered in the one-rider division in addition to its "Open Track" status. Despite the word "Sucker" written on the metal "foot" plate, and even with a rider, nothing can beat the Thor, certainly not the weed-whacker-powered "Huffy" or Schneeveis' flame-belching bunny cart.

In "Top Fuel" -- the multimotor, multirider division -- Jon Sarriugarte, proprietor and creator of Form and Reform, drives a cart powered by the first tool his father gave him in 1979: a Sears Craftsman circular saw.

"He lives in Idaho," says Sarriugarte, who brings a touch of class to the competition with an all-white racing outfit and sparkly red crash helmet. "I don't know if he'll understand what I've done to a perfectly good tool. Hopefully, I will win the prize and be able to buy a new one."

Sarriugarte does win, as does Team Alexander and a very surprised and pleased Scott Anderson from Sunnyvale. Pontiac's prediction notwithstanding, No. 1134 does not win the mosaic-encrusted chick-magnet chain saw; that prize goes to the half-time rodeo clown. No. 1134 wins for most dangerous machine; Schneeveis wins for best engineering; a three-wheeler built by Auger wins for most impressive crash. Each is awarded a Golden Flywheel, but by the end of all the beer and the goofy machismo, no one really cares. As the sun sets behind Highway 101, DJ Big Daddy puts on "Rock You Like a Hurricane" by the Scorpions, and all is as it should be in the junkyard.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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