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Ethan Sutton and Neal Perbix stand next to their car, "Dinner for Two."

Ethan Sutton and Neal Perbix stand next to "Dinner for Two," their tasteful entry in the 2004 Downhill Race.

This car race was anything but a drag

By Rick Moore

If only all class projects were this much fun.

For advanced art students in professor Guy Baldwin's kinetic sculpture class, the big project this semester was for students in teams of two to design and build a moving sculpture--in this case, a car--out of any material deemed suitable (and, it turns out, aesthetically intriguing).

The rules were simple: each car had to pass a basic safety inspection, not have any means of locomotion other than gravity, and be occupied by the two designing students--one who would act as the steerer and the other as the brake person.

On a gorgeous May 5 afternoon, Baldwin's students took their creations to the street in front of the Regis Center for Art on the West Bank to let gravity decide their fate in the 2004 Downhill Race. It was an event that affirmed, once again, that art students are quite a bit more creative, if not offbeat, than the rest of us.

There was even some nonverbal trash-talking before the race ever took place. A flier announcing the rules and prizes for the event issued a dare to outside competitors: "The kinetic sculpture class confidently expects to win all the awards but it wholeheartedly challenges other art students, even grad students, to create cars and compete. We also extend a challenge to students from neighboring institutions such as MCAD, the College of Associated Arts, Augsburg College, etc."

There were no takers from outside of the U. Perhaps they knew the inventive genius percolating in the minds of Baldwin's students this semester.

Aerodynamics might have been thrown to the wind, but "Dinner for Two" was downright tasty. And its occupants dressed for the occasion--Sutton in a pinstripe suit and Perbix in a snappy black sleeveless dress, pink scarf, and... bowling shoes.

The 12 entries included a "car" that looked like a double-decker orange bicycle; another that vaguely resembled the University's solar car; a black, stealthy model that Darth Vader might have felt at home in; a mini BMW with wheelchair wheels and a "FAST ART" license plate; a pink Princess mobile; a car laced with red feather boas; and a car with wings that looked like a dragonfly. "It's more a Mother Nature car," pronounced one of its creators.

Then there was the curious creation of Annmarie Geniusz and Fawzia Khan. Their vehicle contained two seats and two llama heads facing in opposite directions, representing what they felt were the push and pull--and compromise--involved in their creation.

While it may not have been the pre-race favorite, "Dinner for Two," the car created by Neal Perbix and Ethan Sutton, certainly set the mood in the first heat. Atop their car's platform was a table set for two complete with wicker chairs; a rich, burgundy tablecloth; a candle; two plates of tempting food (pasta, green salad, and fresh bread prepared that morning); and a bottle of Riunite lambrusco with two wine glasses.

Aerodynamics might have been thrown to the wind, but this vehicle was downright tasty. And its occupants dressed for the occasion--Sutton in a pinstripe suit and Perbix in a snappy black sleeveless dress, pink scarf, and... bowling shoes.

"We wanted to go for something comical," said Perbix.

As their vehicle was jockeyed around in the starting gate, Perbix and Sutton seemed to grow more relaxed, lighting the candle and pouring the wine while classical music played softly in the background. As the chute was opened and it became apparent early that "Dinner for Two" was going to lose handily to the red feather boa car, Perbix and Sutton enjoyed their food and drink while steering casually down the narrow street, cheered on by the couple hundred people who gathered to pay tribute to the spectacle.

One of the spectators was Jerry Koziak, who made the journey from Wausau, Wisconsin, to watch his son, Keith, compete. As Keith, in his silver protective helmet, was preparing to race, his father was hopeful. "I think they've got a pretty good chance because they have a sleek car with three wheels and very little friction," he said.

It turns out he was right. The race came down to three cars: Koziak's three-wheeled model, the double-decker orange contraption, and the sporty BMW. In head-to-head heats among the three, the BMW, created by Tim Matthews and Alyssa Mykkeltvedt, came from behind to prevail in a couple of exciting photo finishes.

It was a fitting reward for the thrifty Matthews, who lives next to a BMW dealership and has been collecting salvaged parts for some time now. The car also included some complementary parts obtained from eBay. For all their trouble--they spent about a month working just about every day on the car--Matthews and Mykkeltvedt were rewarded with a $150 gift certificate to the University Bookstore and "a trophy of magnificent scale and shininess," as the pre-race flier promised.

Certificates were also presented to winners in a host of other categories, including Most Aesthetic Car, Most Aesthetic Team Outfits, and Most Unlikely to Make it Down the Hill. The Slowest Car award went to Perbix and Sutton, whose "Dinner for Two" suffered the equivalent of a blowout in the second heat. They appeared sated and content, nonetheless.

Professor Baldwin, who presented the awards, also appeared quite happy with the results of the race, which he has conducted sporadically ("about once a decade") since its inception in 1972, his second year at the U. "This was my favorite, by far," he said, "but that's because I've forgotten all the other ones."

For those in attendance, the 2004 race--like a dress-up dinner with wine and classical music--would be hard to forget.