Robot Attack!

At the St. Paul Armory on a sunny Saturday in January, two goateed men wearing NASCAR-style shirts and hats lower their legendary combat robot onto an elevated metal stage surrounded by plexiglass panels. Son of Whyachi is a heavyweight competitor built by Team Whyachi. To fans of combat bot warfare, it represents brute strength and raw power. On this day at a competition called “Mech Wars III,” the appearance of Son of Whyachi causes a stir as judges and emcees cower behind the raised platform where they usually perch. They undoubtedly fear that if the bot rips its opponent to shreds, some of the shrapnel might end up planted in their foreheads.

Son of Whyachi faces Pharmapac, an inelegantly designed but tough black box with a metal snow shovel mounted up front. As the battle begins Son of Whyachi’s mechanical legs spring into action and the rig’s three revolving blades, graced with meat tenderizer-shaped hammers, begin slicing through the air at 130 miles per hour. The blades thrash and crash against Pharmapac, fomenting a cacophony of metal-on-metal noise that could serve as a soundtrack for a war movie. Pharmapac’s body swings widely around during the pummeling, like a fighter trying to regain his footing after too many blows to the head. The crowd is ecstatic, appreciating Son of Whyachi’s relentless barrage against Pharmapac.

Whyachi’s exhibit of brutality does not frighten Craig Lovold, owner of a Holstein-colored bot dubbed Mad Cow. After learning his middleweight bot will face Why Not (the evil kid brother of Son of Whyachi) in its first bout, he does not head for the exit or cower in the corner. The 36-year-old computer programmer arrives at a simple attack strategy for his bot. First he decides to remove the “Spinning Udders of Doom,” a rotating appendage of two hammers and a titanium blade that does its business at 3,000 RPMs. Against Team Whyachi’s huge circling blades, he figures the udders will have little use. Instead, he decides to go for a direct surprise hit and prays that his opponent will die from the shock.

He grows more confident as he watches the Whyachi folks. They madly hover over the three bots they’ve entered into Mech Wars. “We’re optimistic because they’re doing a lot of soldering over there and that’s a good sign,” says Lovold with a grin. Wearing jeans and an “Udder Doom” T-shirt, Lovold has a relaxed style and wit that would not immediately indicate to an outsider that he’s spent many nights in his basement with a few buddies crafting a killer bot. Yet after watching Comedy Central’s hit show “BattleBots” regularly with his 9-year-old son Austin—a common male-bonding ritual in the bot community—he made calls last year to his former colleagues at Wilson Learning, an interactive training and media company. He quickly signed up Sheldon Nelson, Duane Anderson, and Tom Kruchten, all fans of the television program. Lovold began buying parts such as wheels, batteries, and sheet metal to build Mad Cow on a budget that has yet to crest $600. He even managed to attract a few in-kind sponsors who provide welding and materials.

Dubbing themselves “Team Rabid Robotics,” Lovold and friends built a four-wheeled box with direct–drive axles powered by two wheelchair motors. This they covered with armor made out of 11-gauge sheet metal. The crowning achievement was Mad Cow’s “Primary Weapon”—the detachable Udders of Doom hammer-blade combination. Team Rabid Robotics tested the rig, and found it had little trouble annihilating an old computer monitor and a Barcalounger, leaving an impressive mess. Lovold took it out on his driveway in Prior Lake for practice sessions. Some neighbors were frightened, but a posse of youngsters was impressed. Naturally, they’d seen battling bots on television.

Rabid Robotics gave Mad Cow a test run at a Minnesota State Fair exhibition last summer, but Mech Wars III represents its first real competition. And the competition is formidable: Team Whyachi is an intense crew of three who have a reputation for arrogance and a lack of congeniality in the otherwise chummy bot-building community. They wear uniforms, a turnoff for some botsters who don’t like such brazen attempts at professionalism. A woman who helps Whyachi wears a T-shirt that says “Deadly 4-Play,” a message reflecting the team’s general greaseball sensibility.

As it turns out, though, their surliness has more to do with the fact that they were up until 9 the night before, finishing a project at Westar Manufacturing, where they all work. (Whyachi, a term team members invented during innumerable sheepshead card games, is slang for taking someone down hard.) Located in Dorchester, Wisconsin, a small town near Wausau, Westar builds high-speed packaging equipment for the meat processing industry. But its small-town roots have not quelled the ambition of owner and team captain Terry Ewert, a man with big ideas. (Among his more sociable robotic concepts is a “neighborhood electric vehicle,” a sort of quasi-golf cart capable of 25 mph. Ewert hopes to sell it on the team’s web site.)

He dismisses the bad impression some bot builders have of his crew. While Team Whyachi has uniforms, Ewert confesses he simply purchased the clothing out of a catalog and finds it an effective way to spot team members in a crowd. They have sponsorships, unlike most bot builders, but he says it comes mainly in the way of cut-rate supplies and not much cash. And Whyachi’s beauty and craftsmanship come with a steep price tag: Son of Whyachi ran more than $60,000 in materials and labor.

Lovold and Ewert and their gangs represent the range of people who attend competitions and build combat bots. The audience and contestants are overwhelmingly white and male and have jobs in computer programming, engineering, sheet metal operations, and education. Some aspire to take their bots west for combat at “BattleBots,” “Robotica,” and other television shows which collectively have created a sport out of these iron cockfights. Others simply enjoy the competition and the engineering challenge of constructing weapons of little destruction. The Rake’s own Colleen Kruse, the comedian and storyteller who has twice served as an announcer at Mech Wars, calls bot wars “monster trucks for the Mensa set.”

These are the same men who read science fiction, play computer games, refurbish cars, adore Star Trek, and find comfort in the creation of mechanical objects. Along with the adults, there are smart teenagers bored by model airplanes, go-carts, and video games. They’re ready for recreation of a different order, often with the help of parents and siblings. “It’s a neat family project,” says Kruse. “We don’t have occasion to build things together as families anymore, it’s not what people do together. This is a chance to build something without many limits on the imagination.”

Jonathan VanderVelde is not a geek or an engineer but an architect who builds robots as design exercises. A rusty-haired 34-year-old with a rumpled appearance, VanderVelde has an abiding love of fringe cultures that first drew him to battle bots. His resume reveals his variety of passions: He was the lead singer for the power-pop band Zen Bishops. He has written comedy pieces for a local theater company. His interest in battle bots came in part because he saw similar events, chiefly monster truck shows, as “prosaic things” since competitors did not build them from the bottom up. “It could be monster toasters for how much creativity was involved,” he says. “I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to build something to attack and destroy things, where you’d have two teams slugging it out.”

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