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Engineering inspired by a past era and vintage fashion from two hemispheres collided Sunday in Santa Rosa in an outlandish display of mechanical imagination and sartorial time travel.

Picture this: A giant human-powered contraption made to look like a locust on iron wheels hurdled down the railroad tracks while revelers paraded around in Victorian-era costumes, women in tightly-fitted corsets or flowing east Asian garments and men in all manner of bygone hats and jackets or suspenders and grease-stained trousers.

For the tinkerers, inventors and artists involved, and the thousands of onlookers who came to Railroad Square to witness it, the third-annual Handcar Regatta was a whimsical feast for the senses.

This year's eastern-inspired theme, grounded in colonial India, gave the affair a cross-cultural, almost otherworldly feel.

At one point a mini-bus decorated to look like an elephant crept through the crowd with a load of passengers on its roof. Women shaded beneath parasols and men with handlebar mustaches and knee-high rough-rider boots looked on.

"Look at all the artistry!" said first-time visitor Judy Bellows of Forestville.

Labels and distinctions between the various elements and movements at work here need not apply.

But Bellows had what some agreed was the most apt description on the day.

"The best way it was explained to me is Victorian science fiction," she said.

But it's fiction with a lot of know-how.

Take, for instance, the 22 teams that spent the day racing down the railroad tracks on their homemade handcarts. Bicycles, push-pedals or rowing rigs were the most popular sources of power. Many were decorated in the spirit of the day: A glittering pirate ship, an India Pale Ale beer keg.

The Yox Mobile, however, was something different altogether.

Welded steel with a spare design save for the weather vane on top, the craft featured a sort-of merry-go-round that team members spun by running around in circles on a circular platform. A drivetrain spun belts that moved the wheels and the cart down the track.

No surprise here: Brian Yoxall, the team leader, is a graduate student in mechanical engineering at UC Davis.

"For us, it was all about the mechanical design," he said, grinning.

A sleek cart powered by two seated rowing machines and called the Polynesian Flyer had its own secret. It posted one of the days fastest times, 21 seconds down the 700-foot-long course, using rowers recruited from UC Berkeley.

Fashion proved another wild spectacle.

Men wore bowler and boater hats, wing-neck collars, cravat ties, engineer boots and brass-framed circular eyeglasses that one imagines could have been favored by Jules Verne.

Laura Barncard, 26, of Sebastopol was a fitting example of womens' style.

She'd hiked up a pioneer-era dress at mid-thigh with lingerie clips and accessorized with fish-net stockings, a lace corset, lace wrist and ankle cuffs, a lace choker and a sun hat that she imagined as de jour at a Kentucky Derby of yore.

"It's a mish-mosh with modern details," she said.

Live music, street theater, performance art and other attractions filled the free event. Organizers estimated the crowd at more than 10,000.

They also said an effort to bring in donations for the Regatta, which cost about $70,000 to put on this year, appeared to have some success.

VIP passes, which sold for $100 apiece and gave participants access to a catered and cool viewing tent, raised more than $10,000. Donations also were taken at the entry gate.

Winners of the handcart competition will be announced on the Regatta's website this week.

Among the throng of people lined up to watch the races Sunday was 8-year-old Atticus Nicholas of Graton. Decked out in his own train conductor's hat, Nicholas already had picked his winner: Locust Motion, the insect-inspired cart that appeared to hop down the tracks with its giant outstretched green legs.

"It's exciting," he said of the races.

Feet away and towering over the crowd, Jeremy Allen had the best view of it all. The Sebastopol contractor was on stilts covered by a sharp-looking pants suit and vest. Strapped to his back by leather and brass fittings was a 19th-century-styled copper jet pack, or a time machine, depending on who you asked.

"It just has to look like it does something. The audience tells me what it is," Allen said. "It's all about fantasy."

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.