May 8, 2006 1:33 PM PDT

Toolin' down the track at the Power Tool Drag Races

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SAN FRANCISCO--Power Tool Drag Races. The name sounds obvious enough, but if you're like me, you might wonder exactly what that is at first.

Imagine this: You're in a junkyard in an industrial no-man's-land south of San Francisco, among dilapidated cars, tractors and tires piled high on one another. You're surrounded by crowds of people who can't be described in a single word, wearing greased-up T-shirts and jeans, sporting goatees, piercings, tattoos and smiles, and topping it all off with cowboy hats to block the hot sun. ZZ Top is playing over the loudspeaker, and a breeze throws the scent of sawdust, burnt rubber, keg beer and smoke your way.

As at a carnival, an announcer in a black-and-white checkered coat sits up high on scaffolding and belts out team names like "Killer Easter Bunny" and "Pigs in Wonderland" over the mike.

Past the spectators, there's a wooden drag strip 75 feet long and about 2 feet across that lets two modified and unmanned power tools race down their respective 1 foot wide channels. At any time, you could see a power tool, like a cow-splitting saw called the "Heffer Halfer," or a customized lawn-mower-powered bike called the "Red Rooster," race down the track--or more likely, stall out.

Handheld power tools might be belt sanders, angle grinders, Skil saws, drills, chainsaws, weed whackers, vibrators and the like--things that run via AC electrical cords.

Most of the power tools bore into the wood tracks, showing more skill at spraying sawdust into the breeze than at racing forward. Other tool-cars burn through rubber of their own design, leaving the scent of torched car brakes.

Two of the written rules for racers are to "Stay away from the liquor" and "Go faster than anyone else." But co-organizer David Calkin, beer in hand, says the general idea is not to take anything too seriously. Then he screams, "I want a Breathalyzer on that man!" as one of the contestants crashes his car and wafts of smoke begin choking the crowd.

Calkin then says that what's best about the races is also what's worst: "Builders are always late, their stuff is always broken and unfinished, and they whine a lot."

Calkin, by day president of the Robotics Society of America and a professor of robotics at the University of California at San Francisco, has been doing the Power Tool Drag Races for four years with his wife, Simone Davalos, who's the real organizer, she says. Last year, they took a sabbatical from the event because, Calkin said, they were hungover. Two of Calkin's robotics students are competing this year, but there are hundreds of contestants total.

"We're punk rock and we're in a junk yard so we're not hung up on procedures," Davalos says. Still, she says, they have a San Francisco permit for the event and are insured. The S.F. police may drive by just to make sure things are OK (as they did Sunday), but they're cool, she says.

Most of the people here are "burners"--devotees of Burning Man, the San Francisco spawned arts/free expression festival that's now held every summer in the Nevada desert. They'll tell you the drag races are not just about power tools or illegal soapbox racing or even getting drunk with your friends in the afternoon. It's more like the latest in a long line of anticulture phenomenons in San Francisco that started with the Beat poets in North Beach, moved on to the Dead Heads in Haight-Ashbury and now involves "mechanical arts" in obscure junkyards.

"It's part of the S.F. tradition, from word to music to machine," says Stephen Felk, a carpenter who puts on the fighting-robot competition Battlebots.

Shannon O'Hare, for example, is a member of a Jules Verne-inspired Victorian group called the Neverwas, which plans to take its vehicle designed for the drag races out to "Burningham" (Burning Man) this year, he says. The car, also called the Neverwas, is a steam-powered power tool constructed from the engine of a 75-year-old air compressor O'Hare picked up at a garage sale for $5. It's fashioned with the boiler of a steam cleaner, the front end of a motorcycle, a moped tire and a 100-year-old carriage. Its top speed is 12 mph and it raced in the "Funny Car" class.

O'Hare, also known as "major catastrophe," said the vehicle was racing against "life itself." (But it will also be used to fetch ice at Burning Man.)

Here at the races the biggest prize is glory, if not a suntan and a beer buzz--as it is for many contestants and onlookers. Sure, teams might win a trophy or a few hundred dollars for finishing first in the various competitions, such as the Sex Toy Race and Super Stock, single engine power tools with no motor modifications or nonstandard power sources. But racing and losing might be just as good for some.

"I totally look forward to this. It's like the Fourth of July, soapbox racing and Burning Man all rolled up in one," said Weston Headley, a management consultant by day.

For others, one or two disasters are what's best about the event. "I've seen a couple of good fires," say Headley. "The one with a burning teddy bear was really hard to (put) out, too."

If you're not a gearhead like Headley, the outlandishness is key. As one woman said, "The hottest dirtbags in San Francisco are hanging out here."

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