Destruction Junction

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At Robot Wars, combatants rush at one another with buzz saws and axes.

MARK CROMER listens to the crowd roar

The urge for destruction is also a creative urge.”

–Michael Bakunin, 1842

Bathed in the harsh glow of spotlights, two metallic warriors face off inside the arena. The thumping bass of an industrial soundtrack begins to build. A disembodied voice bellows, “Are you ready for some action!?” over the public address system. The crowd roars, “Yes!” Let the games begin.

The high-pitched whine of an obscenely large, gas-powered buzz saw cuts through the air. The crowd goes nuts. The fighters race across the arena floor directly at each other, but in this game of chicken no one pulls out, and the combatants slam into one another with a sickening crack. The crowd shrieks with glee.

Quickly, one fighter has the other pinned against the wall, his buzz saw edging closer to his enemy’s armor. The crowd is now hysterical, its mob verdict thundering across the arena: “Cut him! Cut him! Cut him!”

Behold Robot Wars ’97. This past weekend, more than 1,500 people poured into the Herbst Pavilion at Fort Mason Center to watch what might best be described as a mechanized cockfight. Human blood and guts are not spilled in these radio-controlled gladiator matches, only motor oil, rivets and wires. But the fact that it’s lifeless droids getting the thumbs up or down does not deter the cybermob’s synthetic blood lust. At Robot Wars, the lovable C-3P0 and R2D2 would be shown no mercy.

Now in its fourth year, Robot Wars is the creation of Marc Thorpe, a former model-maker for George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic, who proclaims the event a “new, creative sport.” Thorpe stumbled on the idea back in 1994 when he designed a robot that would vacuum the house. Bored with the vacuum, he replaced it with a chain saw. “I’ve always had an interest in dangerous toys,” Thorpe said. “As soon as I had the idea, I realized we should stage an event.”

The concept is catching on, organizers said, with a Robot Wars due to be staged in London in November and plans for another tourney on the East Coast underway. Other robotic contests, though less violent, have been held in Japan and Canada.

Dozens of journalists from around the nation and the world were also on hand to record this year’s event, including National Geographic’s international edition, Wired and Germany’s Stern magazine. “You might say the world is watching,” said Tracey Miller, publicist for the event. If they are, it’s a scary thought.

“It’s amazing what you Americans come up with; we haven’t seen anything like this in Germany,” said Reiner Gaertner, a German magazine correspondent covering the event. “If you brought this to Germany, the machines would be tougher, you know, because German engineers are rather keen on this kinda stuff. But we might have to import the crowds from America. They are absolutely crazy.”

Like boxing, the robotic contenders in Robot Wars are classified by weight categories, ranging from 10-pound featherweights to 175-pound heavyweights. The judges, who this year included Macintosh inventor Jef Raskin and Joel Hodgson, creator of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” score robots on damage inflicted (which gets the most points), control and style. There are a few restrictions placed on weaponry, such as no open flames, no untethered projectiles (hint: no bullets or missiles) and the “off” switch has to be easily accessible.

Beyond that, almost anything goes. Organizers noted that their first robotic melee, held in San Francisco in 1994, had only 18 contestants and was over in a day. This year, more than 70 contestants entered more than 100 robots into the three-day fray, with the weaponry and designs getting more complex. While there was a good share of humor in some of the designs, such as the remote-controlled Jeep driven by a stuffed bear with a Viking-like Barbie doll attached to the hood, other designs were a little more ominous.

A low-sitting dome called Blendo–a 150-pound machine that speeds around the ground while rotating at 400 rpms–was disqualified as too dangerous after it ripped a chunk of metal off another robot and shot it like a cannonball across the arena into the plexiglass safety wall.

Organizers were prepared for possible casualties. Aside from a first aid station, a long-haired man dressed in full jungle camouflage and a flak jacket greeted ticket-holders (prices ranged up to $80 for the whole affair) at the door, making sure everyone signed a waiver that stated they wouldn’t sue if they lost life or limb at Robot Wars. Inside the pits, eclectic teams of mechanics, inventors, students, mad scientists and teens out for a goof worked feverishly over their creations, somewhat out of the range of the never-ending industrial Muzak.

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.

And Now, Something Really Wild…

As Robot Wars got underway, the buzz among many of the spectators was not of the carnage unfolding in front of them, but of a group that stages clandestine robot shows where “things get really crazy.” Judging by the descriptions of people who said they’ve seen them, the spectacles put on by San Francisco-based Survival Research Laboratories makes Robot Wars pale in comparison.

“Oh yeah, those guys use road kill in their shows. They tie dead pigs on the front of their machines,” said Peter Abrahamson, a contender in Robot Wars who has attended SRL shows. “They’ve got flame throwers and huge machines; we’re talking major destruction.”

A Web site for the group states that SRL was founded in 1978 as an organization of “technicians dedicated to redirecting the techniques, tools and tenets of industry and science away from their typical manifestations in practicality, product or warfare.” The group, headed by founder Mark Pauline, has staged more than 40 “mechanized presentations” since its founding, according to the Web site. SRL’s official site is http://www.srl.org.

One such event, which reportedly took place in the mid-1980s in San Francisco, employed “shock wave cannons” (which direct the blast from a stick of dynamite) and a “fluorescent tube gun” (firing tubes at 200 mph from its eight barrels) and detonated “leaflet bombs” over the crowd, which rained a message that began “Radiate influences of despair and defeat wherever you go.”

If Robot Wars is the techno-nerds’ competitive sport, SRL shows are seen by some as the community’s performance art. “I have a lot of respect for Pauline’s art and integrity,” said Marc Thorpe, the founder of Robot Wars. “Pauline is a beacon of anarchy.”

Abrahamson agrees it’s art. “They are making a statement,” he said. “I’m just not sure what it is. I’m not sure how to interpret it.”

This article was fist published in the Los Angeles Times.