The speed of the blade

Best crash? Safety third? Power-tool drag racing would get you expelled from shop class.

Danimal and Chris Brick defy the laws of Black & Decker on the back lot of the Gallery Horse Cow.

Danimal and Chris Brick defy the laws of Black & Decker on the back lot of the Gallery Horse Cow.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Johnny Ziptie pulled a length of extension cord from the back of his truck and headed for the racetrack. A quick glance inside the cab of his pickup truck offered clues about the man and his philosophy. Two well-worn books held down a binder of papers on the front seat: Kalle Lasn’s Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge—and Why We Must and The Book of the SubGenius: The Sacred Teachings of J.R. “Bob” Dobbs. On the dashboard, a plastic figurine of a Buddha holding a cell phone and a coffee cup nestled next to a black baseball cap with “Ziptie” embroidered on the front in red thread. Laminated Burning Man passes and snapshots of friends poked out of the sun visors. Considered in combination with the hefty toolboxes bolted to the back of the truck, these signs suggested Mr. Ziptie was the sort of individual who wouldn’t shy away from hard work or a healthy dose of friendly subversive mischief.

In fact, he was headed for some right then. Earlier that afternoon, Ziptie and his friend Beverly Neeland had assembled an 80-foot racetrack in the parking lot of the Gallery Horse Cow, not too far from the vacant stage of the gallery’s aborted Exploding Opera. The wooden track had two lanes, each a foot wide and bordered by 3-inch walls. The first 50 feet were painted a succession of bright colors, and the tail ended in black-and-white checks—the finish line. On Sunday, July 25, this homemade track will become the centerpiece for Ziptie’s current project: Sacramento’s first-ever Power Tool Drag Race.

Ziptie acquired his name on one of his many Burning Man camping trips, when he roamed the playa with a pocket full of the plastic devices. “Anytime anyone needed anything fixed, I could fix it with a zip tie,” he recalled. “I made bike baskets out of two-gallon water containers and zip-tied them to everyone’s bike. ‘Johnny Ziptie’ was pretty agreeable with me as a nickname, so it’s stuck ever since.”

One year ago, Ziptie founded the Sacramento chapter of the Cacophony Society—an international organization that describes itself as “a randomly gathered network of individuals united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society through subversion, pranks, art, fringe explorations and meaningless madness.” Supported by a dozen core members and always open to the public, the Sacramento chapter holds monthly meetings to plan each month’s wild activity. Past events have included mariachi caroling on Cinco de Mayo and dressing up like Santa Clauses to hand out “Buy Nothing Day” fliers at Downtown Plaza. “It’s all subversive,” Ziptie said. “It’s making people think about their situation and why they’re so comfortable and [whether] they have a right to be. But it’s also doing fun stuff that makes you feel better.”

While staging the Power Tool Drag Race may qualify as fun, Ziptie was careful to say it’s not a Cacophony-sponsored event. “Since I’m doing the race for profit, I want to keep it totally separate,” he explained.

Ziptie walked the length of the track, unwinding the extension cord alongside it, leaving the plug at the beginning. Then he disappeared into the cavernous warehouse of the Gallery Horse Cow and came back with his racing vehicle: a Black & Decker saw on wheels.

“This is a circular saw,” Ziptie said as he held up the jury-rigged hybrid tool-car. “We really quickly modified it by clamping on a piece of bar stock and some rollerblade wheels. Then we pinned the switch in the on position.”

“With a zip tie!” Neeland added, laughing.

Ziptie set the saw at the start of one lane, balancing it precariously on two wheels in the front and the jagged saw-blade in back. Deep gouges in the track’s wood floor suggested this wasn’t the saw’s virgin run. Then he joined the saw’s plug with the extension cord, and zip! The saw sped down the track with a grinding whine, leaving an unfurling extension cord and a small flurry of sawdust in its wake. Seconds later, Ziptie unplugged the saw as it crossed the checkered line, and it sputtered to a halt.

The entire event was over in a blink. It was fast. It was loud. It was somewhat dangerous and more than a little bizarre. It’s a combination Ziptie hopes will draw gearheads and fringe artists from throughout Northern California when up to 60 such tools compete in the daylong drag races at the Sacramento Horsemen’s Club. He’ll also have barbecue, beer and live music by Las Pesadillas, Gwamba and Son, the Snobs and Nevada Backwards to sweeten the experience.

“I don’t know where I heard about it first,” Ziptie said of the power-tool-drag-racing concept. Taken with the idea, he did an Internet search and discovered that an American folk tradition of racing handheld tools had sprung up in the last decade. “People have made so many incredible tools,” he said excitedly. “This is getting to be a subculture, and it’s growing every year. People are taking tiny motors out of weed whackers to power bikes and skateboards, applying all these little motors to go-karts and who knows what all.”

Johnny Ziptie wrangles the Colonel Sander as Danimal looks on.

Photo By Larry Dalton

On the competitive-racing front, Ziptie discovered a decade-old tradition of belt-sander races in Ohio, as well as a Bay Area organization called Qbox that had held two previous power-tool drag races in San Francisco.

“I looked for announcements for future events, but I couldn’t find any,” Ziptie said. “I thought it would be cool if we did it here in Sacramento. We’re far away enough that we wouldn’t be stepping on anybody’s toes.” In January, Ziptie bought the Internet domain and posted the date and rules for the race online.

A few weeks later, Qbox announced it was holding another power-tool drag race in San Francisco. It had signed a deal with the Discovery Channel to film a four-part documentary series about the event, scheduled to air in 2005. As part of that deal, and much to Ziptie’s surprise, Qbox had copyrighted the phrase “power tool drag racing,” the name of Ziptie’s Web site.

Toes had indeed been stepped on. “It was my mistake, because I hadn’t talked to them,” Ziptie admitted. He contacted Qbox immediately. “They said, ‘Who are you and why are you doing our event?’” he said.

Through a series of e-mail exchanges, peace was achieved. “We worked it out,” Ziptie explained. “Their answer to the Discovery Channel was that we were friends of theirs, people they were working with to some extent, which was really nice of them.” Ziptie and his friends, who are funding the entire event out of pocket, hadn’t budgeted for licensing fees. Luckily, Qbox allowed them to use the copyrighted name in exchange for a cold six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and an invitation to Sacramento’s first Power Tool Drag Race.

That was only the first hurdle for the event. Once Ziptie secured the Sacramento Horsemen’s Club as a location, he began the grueling process of buying insurance to cover an event in which sharp tools would be whizzing around at top speeds. “It’s been really hard,” he groaned.

At first, Ziptie was completely honest with insurance companies about the parameters of the event. He explained that the race would be held in a 400-by-100-foot rodeo arena that would be totally off-limits to everyone but the two people racing their tools in each race. Each power-tool driver would set his or her tool on the track and walk 25 feet back to stand near two remote boxes that feed electricity through extension cords to the tools. Once the light at the end of the track turned green, and the master safety switch that controls the flow of electricity was opened by event staff, the racers would hit the buttons on the box, and the tools would head down the track. At the end of the race, before anyone could approach the track, the master electricity switch would be turned off, and the tools rendered motionless. Just in case, there would be trained medics on site.

Ziptie delivered this spiel to more than a dozen insurance companies. “Nobody would touch it with a 10-foot pole,” Ziptie affirmed. Deciding honesty is not the best way to buy a policy, he began describing his event as a “kinetic art show.”

“It’s not lying,” Neeland said. “It’s sculpture, and it moves!”

Just three weeks before the event, with more than $3,000 invested, the kinetic art show was insured. “Everything’s above-board now,” Ziptie enthused. “It’s been an adventure. I’ve learned a lot in the last few months.”

During a phone interview just a short while before the event, Ziptie sounded much more relaxed. Only a few details remained, like making the trophies. In addition to cash prizes, the first-place winners of the races will get one-of-a-kind trophies Ziptie’s friends are creating out of metal-bodied Craftsman drills and other vintage tools. The basic racing categories are electric, electric modified and gas modified. The modified categories allow participants to combine multiple motors and unique apparatus to make moving works of art. However, there are also awards for best crash, strangest base tool and—a category that makes insurance companies cringe—the “safety third” award.

It sounds dangerous, but Ziptie promised, “There’s no way our audience can get near this stuff. No one will get hurt, unless someone twists an ankle on the grass.”

Watch out for those extension cords.