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Handcar Regatta's crazy contraptions

  • Eric Acuna, left, and Daniel Nicholas compete during the Handcar Regatta on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011. (BETH SCHLANKER / PD)

They wore silk bustiers and leather boots, carried parasols and copper, space-age pistols, showed off thigh-high stockings and brass mono-goggles, and cheered wildly as crazy contraptions raced — sometimes careened — down old railroad tracks.

The steampunk-themed Handcar Regatta festival again took over Railroad Square on Sunday. It drew thousands of people into the historic West End neighborhood, coloring it in a sort of turn-of-the-century-inspired irreverence.

“It's a dreamed-of future from the past that doesn't exist,” said Rain Thibaudeaux, 54, of San Francisco, trying to capture the essence of steampunk.

“It's kind of Victorian with a modern aspect. It's weird,” said Luke Mott, 11, of Santa Rosa.

Whatever it is, it was an event anchored by its racing machines, 26 muscle-powered inventions that seemed both cobbled together from scavenged materials and works of mad-eyed mechanical genius.

What was the name of that low-slung sled-like affair with a silvery tortoise head and reddish shell?

“You'll have to ask the engineer,” said Adam Burns, 38, a Healdsburg tattoo artist, who painted it.

But the engineer, a large man in overalls, stepped away and disappeared into the crowd, estimated at about 12,000 by Ty Jones, the event's co-founder.

The handcar's tortoise shell was fiberglass; the ribs, insulation foam; the rivets — about 150 of them — peppermint candies covered with fiberglass and painted to resemble metal.

“I just wanted it to look like a submarine, Jules Verne-inspired,” said Burns, whose handlebar mustache was curled to pin-sharp points.

Irony attended, too.

The crowds around the old railroad station were almost certainly the kind of scene dear to the imagination of commuter train officials who envision the area as a rail-centered hub of transit, residential and commercial life.

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