State of Wonder

Kinetic Sculpture Racers Pedal On At da Vinci Days

By Liza Yeager (OPB)
July 14, 2017 8:37 p.m.

When we asked Reed Lacy about the kinds of people who build kinetic sculptures, he had a pretty simple answer: “It's mostly people that like to tinker,” Reed said.


Reed does like to tinker. And, this weekend at the da Vinci Days festival in Corvallis, he'll be racing his own vehicle. It's the same souped-up, bolted-together tandem bike he's been working on since the first kinetic sculpture race in Corvallis in 1993.

Back then, it was almost the same challenge: build a human powered vehicle that can zoom on the road, float down the river, and make fast tracks through a deep, sticky mud bog. These days, there's a sand dune to plough over, too. Plus, of course, you need to build a sculpture, beauty — plus general performance and goofiness — matters. Reed heard about the challenge at work; he's a software engineer at Hewlett Packard.

“So there was one team, they went to their CAD systems and engineered some incredible machines. And I went to my workshop with my hacksaw and my spare odds and ends and we made sculptures,” Reed said.

Twenty-five years into the game, Reed and his daughter Emily gave us a look at their masterpiece.

Reed Lacy and Emily Lacy-Nichols pedal their kinetic sculpture.

Reed Lacy and Emily Lacy-Nichols pedal their kinetic sculpture.

Courtesy of Sally Shumaker

Picture a tandem bike with two extra wheels — hardcore, rubber ones wrapped in grubby purple ropes — saddling the back end. Sticking up and out behind one seat are two 8-foot metal poles, plus, there are two thick Styrofoam floats strapped onto either side of the bike lengthwise. Add some bright blue banners and a gigantic, bungee-covered bike basket, and you might be close to picturing the Lacy family’s human powered vehicle.

“It's basically a tandem vehicle with just the right stuff bolted onto it,” Reed said.

There are two other kids and a mom in this family, and they’ve all been involved with racing in the past. These days, Reed and Emily are the main sculpture pilots; they do a couple of races each year on the West Coast, traveling to Port Townsend, Washington; Klamath Falls; or sometimes Arcata, California. Emily also handles the art on the sculpture; she’s a graphic designer. This year, they’ve named their sculpture 'Brave Sir Father and His Merry Minstrel' — a play on Monty Python’s Brave Sir Robin.

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“The art is kind of Old English-style calligraphy with flags in the background, kind of going off the the cover of the DVD where there's a cup of goofy people in the clouds,” Emily said. “Yeah, we are the goofy people in the clouds.”

They’ve got period costumes, too, and they’ll race in character, probably yelling insults in Old English at their competitors. In the past, those competitors have included a bus-sized warthog with covered wiggly foam hair, a vehicle ridden by a full accordion band, all pedaling and an aluminum dragon that carried a propane tank and shot fire through its nostrils when prompted.

Stiff competition, but Emily and Reed are feeling confident. Their sculpture works well on the road; they just need to go fast enough to stay balanced.

“At a certain speed it's fine, but then I get really nervous and start yelling things,” Emily said.


Next, they’ll shift into three-wheeled, hardcore tire mode to take them up and over the sand dune. The mud bog gets tricky, but Reed and Emily have a solution: Standing up, they’ll slide metal bars into the upright sabers attached to their back wheels and use them as hand levers to push themselves through the muckiest mud. Plus, they have a speedy way to make it through the water. The bike tires can be converted into paddle wheels with 36 small blades made from kitchen cabinets and sheet metal.

Most of the material for the bike came from the local Habitat for Humanity Resale Store, Reed explained. “It's just a matter of finding the right junk,” he said. “I forget if it was Edison who said, ‘To create new things it just takes some imagination and a big pile of junk.’”

"Under the Rainbow," another iteration of the Lacy family vehicle.

"Under the Rainbow," another iteration of the Lacy family vehicle.

courtesy of Mary Stephens

Things haven’t always gone smoothly for the Lacys. The first year they raced, Reed was really excited about making a vehicle that simply worked. Except, it didn’t.

“It completely sank in the water. You couldn't get it to go in the mud,” he said.

The next year they built on huge cans for wheels that floated well but totally tipped in the street.

“It was so incredibly wobbly and if there was the slightest bit of camber on the road the wheels would be toppled over,” Reed said. “So you'd be at a complete standstill, and you'd have to carefully get it started again.”

Even in the past few years, when Emily and Reed came up with functional designs, there have been a few accidents. Racing in Arcata, they were about to go down a giant sand dune called Dead Man’s Drop.

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“This is a sand dune that's taller than a four-story building,” Reed said. “It's a daunting dune. And you can have people behind you with ropes so you can control the speed and then at some point you let go. Emily was very concerned that we were going to be screaming and wiping out.”

That didn’t turn out to be their problem. Reed and Emily’s front tire sunk deep, deep into the sand.

“We actually had to pedal down Dead Man's Drop,” Reed said. “There was no freewheeling.”

But, at a kinetic sculpture race, those moments of failure are part of the package.

“This is not a cutthroat race,” Emily said. “This is a leap into the mud in order to help the sculpture, everyone is willing to help everyone else.”

And when it comes to the judging, racers can still get recognition, even if they mess up.

“Failure is celebrated in many of the awards here,” Reed said.

“There's basically an award for everyone, even if it's biggest splash or best use of last year's theme,” Emily added.