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Free Fun in the Sun 

And an extra benefit: raised environmental awareness

Webster's defines "kinetic" as "pertaining to or caused by motion." Take that simple premise, add some spare boat and bicycle parts, plus whatever else you can scrounge up, throw in some ingenuity, a bit of artistic flair and theatricality, plenty of humor and environmental awareness, and you wind up with an event like this Saturday's 2003 Catawba River Romp Kinetic Eco-Race. Organized by the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, the River Romp, which will take place at Ramsey Creek Park, challenges a group of intrepid participants to design, build and race various human-powered "kinetic conveyances" -- the more creative, not say wackier, better -- around a land and water obstacle course. In addition to being eye-catching and both land and water worthy, each vehicle has to sport a specific environmental theme. A group of celebrity judges will be on hand to give out awards for engineering, sculpture, style, humor, speed and a special "What were you thinking?" prize.

"We've been searching for a signature, fundraising event for the river and the kinetic eco-race fits our mission the best," says Donna Lisenby, the Catawba Riverkeeper. "The emphasis is on building a non-polluting, human-powered vehicle that traverses both land and water and also allows for personal expression. But most of all, the event is about free fun in the sun."

Mark Sleeper of Lake Wylie, his son Ian, and a couple of their friends have been working on their kinetic craft for most of the summer, and Sleeper says they're ready to put it to the test on Saturday.

"We're past the research and development stage and into the cosmetics and decorations," says Sleeper, who is one of the founding members of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation and a former board member.

Their craft is built around the frame of an old pontoon, to which they've welded two bicycles on the front (to propel the vehicle on land), a bicycle on the back (for steering), along with a set of oars, which will help them navigate the craft through the water (they hope).

"I'm very interested in the environment and figured the eco-race was for a great cause," Sleeper says. "We're having fun with it, but I hope it will also help raise awareness about the importance of water quality and the fact that everybody needs to pitch in to make a significant change for the better."

One of the teams Sleeper and company will face is the Lake Norman Cove's Keepers, a volunteer group that monitors water quality issues for the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation. Cove Keeper member Chuck St. Clair admits that his team's vehicle -- essentially a kayak attached to two bicylces -- isn't going to win any engineering awards, but he's happy to be able to contribute to a good cause.

"We just hope it will float," says St. Clair. "But we thought it would be a fun way to help raise money for the River Foundation and awareness about keeping our lakes clean."

Piloting the aptly named "Hunk-A-Junk Y'all" will be Tim Jones and his girlfriend Patricia Siddons, part of the Cornelius Pizza Hut team.

"It's made completely out of trash," says Jones of the their recycled creation. "We haven't spent a single penny on anything. We took a pallet from a construction site and attached 5-gallon water jugs and a big sail and strapped it all down with electrical wire. All we have to do now is attach some bicylce tires."

The whole kinetic eco-race thingamajig began in 1969 California with a bar bet. Hobart Brown, a Ferndale, CA sculptor and art gallery owner, decided to try to fix his son's broken tricycle. When the repairs didn't work out as planned, Brown opted to weld random bits and pieces of scrap metal to the bike.

When he finished, the tricycle was more than six feet tall, and Brown had to add three extra wheels to the bright red, wobbly piece of art to stop it from falling over.

Shortly afterward, while bragging about his creation at a local watering hole, Brown got into a heated conversation with local metal sculptor Jack Mays, who claimed he could weld together a customized tricycle that both looked better and outperformed Brown's bike. Mays then challenged Brown to a race down Ferndale's Main Street during the annual Ferndale Arts Festival. By the time the day of the big race arrived, a dozen other artist/engineers showed up with their own strange vehicles and demanded they be allowed to enter the race, and thus the goofy tradition was born.

Today, "kinetic sculpture" races are held in a dozen or so states, most notably in Boulder, CO, where the Kinetic Sculpture Challenge has been taking place for over two decades and attracts thousands each year. The upcoming Catawba River Romp marks the first time such a race has been held in the Southeast.

"This is going to the first true kinetic land and water race in the area," says Catherine Mitchell of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation. "And the potential for growth looks very promising. So much of the foundation's work is about solving serious problems. This is going to be an event that's just fun and crazy and at the same time celebrates the Catawba River."

The 2003 Catawba River Romp Kinetic Eco-Race is Saturday, August 2 from 8am to 6pm on Lake Norman at Ramsey Creek Park in Cornelius. There will be live music, food, drink and a variety of vendors. Admission is free but donations are encouraged. For more information, go to the Catawba Riverkeeper website: www.catawbariverkeeper.org.

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