The following article was published in the SF Weekly magazine on 9/1/99:


SF Weekly 9/1/99
by Jack Boulware

Jim Smentowski waits for the guy wearing a helmet and combat fatigues to unlock the doors leading to the fighting cage. The ersatz soldier looks back and signals the all clear. Smentowski and two helpers crouch and push a 200-pound wheeled robot named Nightmare up a ramp and into the cage with 19-foot walls made of inch-thick clear Lexan.

Nightmare is the robot to watch this August weekend at the first-ever BattleBots competition held at the Long Beach Pyramid basketball arena. The double- elimination contest pits remote-controlled vehicles against each other, in the sport known as "robotic combat." Destruction is encouraged.

Smentowski wheels his robot to one end of the cage. A veteran of previous bouts, he's had time to consider his past defeats. Nightmare, his latest creation, looks like a bastardized Big Wheel tricycle. Its primary weapon is a large steel disk with metal prongs that spins at 300 mph.

The BattleBots safety inspection team has admired Smentowski's unique design, but halfway through the weekend's competition, it gave him an ultimatum: Either drop out of the event and accept a special award, or modify Nightmare to render the spinning disc less dangerous. In a pre-event demonstration, Nightmare pulverized a 50-gallon steel drum, and in its first few BattleBots matches, it tore up its competitors and tossed debris up into the air.

To appease event producers, Smentowski, a model builder for George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic, has agreed to reverse the direction of the spinning disc, so that when Nightmare chews up its opponents, the ensuing carnage is thrown to the ground instead of being hurled skyward.

As the crew positions Nightmare for combat, two girls enter the cage, holding up spray-painted cardboard signs that read "Night Mare." The crowd cheers.

Across the steel floor of the cage waits Killahurtz, a robot from England piloted by John Reid. Rectangular and low-slung, Killahurtz is built from clear Lexan, a polycarbonate material used in riot shields, and features a giant pneumatic-powered ax. Unfortunately, the ax was damaged in an earlier bout, and Killahurtz must face Nightmare without its primary weapon. Killahurtz's only hope is to disable Nightmare by ramming it into one of the spikes or rotating circular saw blades that periodically rise from the cage floor without warning to liven up the robot duels.

An announcer gives the signal -- "Three, two, one, KICK BOT!" -- and the robots approach each other to a driving disco beat. Nightmare's wheel revs up to maximum speed. The robots smash together in an explosion of parts, and furiously attempt to slam each other into the spinning saw blades. One blade catches Killahurtz and shears off a chunk of Lexan.

Smentowski and Reid stand just outside the wall, working their remote control units, following the action as intently as big game hunters out on the veld. Their only movement is their fingers, wiggling joysticks and switches.

Killahurtz is much quicker, and scoots Nightmare into a corner. Killahurtz retreats, then suddenly zooms the length of the cage, plowing into Nightmare's spinning wheel with a tremendous smack. The crowd screams its delight, nerds cheering in bloodless bloodlust. Killahurtz again plows into Nightmare, and with 10 seconds left in the fight, flips the mechanical beast onto its back. Hundreds of tennis shoes stomp the bleachers in approval. Nightmare goes down in defeat.

Smentowski and Reid laugh and shake hands, as assistants sweep robot detritus from the floor. Ultimately, Killahurtz will win second place in the tournament, and Nightmare will be awarded Most Aggressive Robot.

The BattleBots competition has attracted 75 robots and their support crews to Southern California on this August weekend, all vying for $25,000 in prize money. Several teams are from the Bay Area, others from across the country, and two groups have flown over from England to compete.

It is the first robotic combat event in California since 1997, and the competitors have spent two years waiting for this moment. At one end of the arena, called the Pit, nervous builders tinker with their creations between bouts, replacing damaged parts and recharging battery packs.

Sounds of power tools and shearing metal fill the air, accompanied by the unmistakable spirit of adolescent geekiness. Violence is always primal and compelling, and when it's presented as a sporting contest, an audience can't wait to cheer on the bloodshed. And if this violence is perpetrated by a group of people who aren't usually associated with savagery, it can be as fascinating to watch as the junior high geek who gets into a fistfight. Nerd testosterone always demands attention.

A CNN camera crew chases down Greg Munson, who is co-producer of BattleBots, along with his cousin, Trey Roski. "It's the sport of the future," Munson tells the reporter. "The sport of the new millennium."

Anyone listening in might get the impression that Munson and Roski invented the idea of robotic combat. But, in fact, the sport first debuted in 1994 at a drafty warehouse in San Francisco's Fort Mason.

Back then, the annual event was called Robot Wars, and for four years it attracted international attention as the first-of-its-kind venue for robotic carnage. Roski and Munson were competitors at the original Robot Wars, as was Smentowski and many of the others who have shown up in Long Beach for BattleBots.

But Robot Wars has not been staged since 1997, the victim of two years of heated litigation. The BattleBots contest in Long Beach is a new incarnation of the concept, an effort by new organizers to revive a sport that had disappeared into the maw of courthouses and law offices.

In many ways, the fight over who owns the rights to Robot Wars has been bloodier than any robot duel. Marc Thorpe, the Bay Area model builder who dreamed up the sport and produced the first four Robot Wars events, is no longer involved with any aspect of the business. Thorpe has been sued for $8.9 million by his former business partner, Steve Plotnicki, owner of New York-based Profile Records.

Many in fighting robot circles still treat Thorpe as their figurehead, but he has lost all rights to his idea, and a court order bars him from any involvement in the very sport he created. He has declared bankruptcy, and could lose his home in Marin County.

The bad feelings created by the ongoing lawsuits run deep through the extended robot family, a community that one competitor terms "New Age NASCAR." In addition to Thorpe, Plotnicki sued other robot builders -- including the heavyweight champion. He has also sued the BattleBots organization, which is based in San Francisco, and tried to stop it from staging its Long Beach contest. Lawsuits between Plotnicki, Thorpe, and Roski are still not resolved.

Because of the tricky legal situation, BattleBots' producers carefully distanced their event from Robot Wars, in name, design, and execution. The only hint that the sport even existed in a previous incarnation was a single disclaimer in the BattleBots program, stating that BattleBots has no affiliation with Robot Wars or any other organization.

If Robot Wars should emerge from the lawsuits and stage any events in the future, many robot builders say they won't have anything to do with it. They don't like how Thorpe has been treated. And they're afraid of getting sued themselves.

At the BattleBots contest, a San Francisco special effects model-maker named Fon Davis stands in the Pit, recharging his batteries. His pink-colored Mouser Catbot 2000, painted to resemble the face of a cat, scoots across the floor like an upturned salad bowl. It first debuted in the 1997 Robot Wars. At the mention of Profile and the tangle of lawsuits, Davis reacts immediately.

"I think a lot of people are hoping it's over," he says, shutting the lid of his robot. "It's an unfortunate situation. They're making a lot of enemies. You don't sue your entertainment, you know?"

If there's any lesson to be learned in the short history of Robot Wars, it's that the intersection of art and commerce is always precarious and unpredictable. Even with something as seemingly irrelevant as battling robots, it's possible to come up with a great idea that everyone loves and have it completely taken away from you.

A 1971 graduate of UC Davis, artist Marc Thorpe once received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship for training two dolphins to swim in patterns that created "behavior sculpture." He later joined George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic in Marin, where he worked for 15 years as a model builder and toy designer. Among his credits were the second and third Star Wars films, and the Indiana Jones trilogy. One day in 1992, he was fooling around in his kitchen, trying to connect a radio-controlled model tank to his vacuum cleaner. The experiment failed; an idea was born.

Thorpe was bored with building models to fulfill someone else's creative vision. Coincidentally, ILM dissolved his department, and he had no experience in computer graphics, the direction that ILM was headed. He needed something else to do.

He spent the next two years devising a new game, a sport where robotic vehicles of similar size would fight duels in front of a live audience. The battleground arena would feature obstacles like circular saws, giant pinball-type flippers, and a bowling ball suspended by a rope. Thorpe registered the name Robot Wars as a trademark, and began looking for backers to stage his event.

There weren't even any fighting robots to personify the concept, so Thorpe took a model of a tank, attached a couple of evil-looking saw blades and gears, photographed it, and made up promotional kits. Once the idea was planted in the minds of designers and tinkerers, Thorpe figured, real robots would follow.

Thorpe secured a building at Fort Mason to stage his first event, and started pushing the publicity buttons. He met with a few investors, but they balked. He canceled and rescheduled the date of the Robot Wars premiere event three times. Finally, a blurb about Thorpe's vision appeared in a 1994 issue of Wired.

"I don't feel uncomfortable about destruction," Thorpe told the magazine. "Promoting combat between robots instead of people is a healthy alternative." The article caught the eye of Profile Records, a small indie label in New York City.

Best known for launching the rap group Run-D.M.C., Profile was always on the lookout for new opportunities. A representative flew out to San Francisco and met with Thorpe. With one month to go before the 1994 event was scheduled to take place, a deal was struck. Profile and Thorpe would go 50/50 on a new company called Robot Wars. Profile kicked in $50,000 to produce the event, and Thorpe was credited for $7,000 of his own money he'd already spent. A Joint Venture Agreement was drafted and signed between Thorpe and Profile President Steve Plotnicki.

The first Robot Wars event in August 1994 attracted some 1,000 people to Fort Mason, and featured 17 robots, dueling in a 60-by-40-foot arena, marked off with a pipe railing. The crowd cheered on these strange vehicles powered by gasoline engines and Makita power drills. Designs ranged from a ventriloquist's dummy on a tricycle to a vehicle with a lawn mower blade on top. As an independent demonstration for the crowd, Thorpe invited San Francisco industrial art-punks Survival Research Laboratories, who brought a giant three-legged robotic beast. When driver Mark Pauline fired up the propane jet engine, it blasted everyone's ears and rattled the windows.

The 1994 event lost money but gained international attention, and both Thorpe and Plotnicki realized there might be money in licensing and broadcast rights to the contests. The following spring, a British production company purchased a Robot Wars license and began developing a TV version for the BBC.

For the next three years, Robot Wars was held each August at Fort Mason. As the technology evolved, so did the robot designs. Builders would spend an entire year developing robots that wielded a chain-saw blade, pneumatic battering ram, or swinging sledgehammer. One popular style was a wedge shape, made successful by Trey Roski, a graphic designer, and his La Machine creation, which was perfect for shoving a competitor into obstacles.

People crowded in to glimpse the latest design of Hollywood special effects artist Mark Setrakian, whose precise attention to aesthetics resulted in highly customized robots with walking legs, or one that looked like a mechanical snake. Setrakian and his Team Sinister were viewed as something akin to the Ed "Big Daddy" Roths of the robot world.

And then there was Blendo.

No robot then or now has captured the imagination of the audience more than Blendo. Although it has not appeared in public since 1997, a curious mystique surrounds it to this day. Not only was it exciting to watch, and undefeated, but Robot Wars deemed Blendo so dangerous that it ultimately was banned from competition.

Blendo's design was deceptively simple: Two $30 Chinese cooking woks were bolted to a steel plate. Underneath this dome shape, a 5-horsepower Briggs & Stratton lawn mower engine spun a metal flywheel at 70 miles an hour. Two sharp blades were bolted to the flywheel, and protruded several inches from under the dome. A paper loader mechanism borrowed from a Xerox machine functioned as the drive system.

The result was a 175-pound Weber grill from Satan's own back yard. Nobody stood a chance. Blendo didn't just defeat opponents, its centrifugal force literally tore them to shreds, dramatically flinging pieces into the air with a loud thwack. Most matches were over within seconds, the audience screaming and stamping its feet, as the opposing driver quietly picked up stray wheels and metal shards from the arena. People would swarm the Team Blendo pit area, measuring the robot, taking photographs, drawing schematics, trying to figure out its design weaknesses, if any, and how to modify their own armor to defend against it. Visitors to Internet robot forums posted endless theories on how to take Blendo down. Robot Wars modified its official rules to reflect Blendo's revolutionary rotary-inertia design.

Playing off their notoriety, designer Jamie Hyneman and other Team Blendo members would show up at events wearing cammo fatigues, and refuse to speak with any other roboteers. Hyneman would find out who his next opponent was, then sit nearby, staring him down while honing the tips of Blendo's blades.

"They'd get all worked up," he laughs. "The pit area got quiet, and people turned pale. We like that kind of thing. This is all just great fun."

Hyneman says he spent only $600 to construct Blendo, most of which paid for the radio electronics. Since going into semi-retirement, Hyneman has had time to think about his brief tenure as a Robot Wars superstar.

"All of the geeks who were never on the football team but made straight A's in science -- this is their chance to be bullies," says Hyneman, who builds models for M5 Industries in San Francisco. "There's a huge amount of emotion involved. Unlike the high school football game, there's a lot of thought, very high-quality thought, that goes into this stuff. You're competing against something that you have no idea what you're going to go against."

But after four years of Robot Wars -- with its sold-out crowds, international media attention, and an ever-growing community of robot builders -- the fun stopped.

Almost from the beginning, the business structure of Robot Wars was fractious and confrontational. The company existed with no corporate structure or signed document, other than the original Joint Venture Agreement between Marc Thorpe and Profile Records.

Although the first four events were popular, none turned a profit. Both Steve Plotnicki and Thorpe suspected there was money to be made in toy merchandising and licensing. But other than a 1995 deal with British television, and a game concept with Virgin Interactive that went nowhere, no deals were ever cut. From Profile's perspective, Robot Wars bled money from the beginning.

The annual contests almost ended after 1995. According to Thorpe's court filings, Profile discontinued his salary just before the 1996 Robot Wars, and refused to fund that year's event unless it got a greater percentage of the ownership to the rights. Thorpe borrowed money from two Profile employees, put in $24,000 of his own money, and produced the 1996 event anyway. Profile relented, and assisted with the production.

The following year, negotiations continued on both sides to refine the initial Joint Venture Agreement, without success. Profile, in court filings, says it suspected that Thorpe was planning a 1997 event behind its back, in violation of the existing agreement, which stated that all decisions had to be made jointly. Profile called BASS and realized tickets were being sold for a 1997 Robot Wars event in August at Fort Mason. The event's sponsor was listed as Stickman Presents, a company belonging to Thorpe. What was formerly an extended negotiation period finally ended up in the courtroom. Profile filed a cease-and-desist action against Thorpe, seeking a preliminary injunction preventing any Robot Wars events outside the initial Joint Venture Agreement.

Thorpe claimed Profile didn't want to fund a 1997 event because he hadn't signed their offer to turn Robot Wars into a limited liability corporation (LLC), with Profile holding a controlling percentage. Profile also wanted creative control, and demanded a non-compete agreement from Thorpe, his court filings say.

Attorneys on both sides went back and forth on the matter, and after meeting with a judge, a temporary agreement was reached. Robot Wars would allow Thorpe to conduct the 1997 San Francisco event, for a $1 fee. Thorpe would be responsible for all costs, retain all profits, and receive a salary. The existing business structure would be changed to an LLC. Profile would advance more money to Robot Wars and provide accounting; Robot Wars would pay Profile back its investment on an installment plan.

The 1997 Robot Wars event attracted the largest crowd yet, but it would be the last. Immediately afterward, Thorpe and Plotnicki ended up back in court.

According to Thorpe, Plotnicki had blatantly refused to negotiate with other companies that were interested in doing deals with Robot Wars, including Fox television, Jim Henson, Tyco-Mattel, and TalentWorks, a pay-per-view company that had produced the World Series and the Super Bowl. Thorpe alleged that Plotnicki was deliberately attempting to starve the business so that he could gain control of it. Thorpe maintained that the Robot Wars Limited company that struck the deal with British television was formed by Profile behind Thorpe's back. His attorneys stressed that Profile would draft agreements, get him to agree to them in principle, and then change the wording just before he signed them.

Plotnicki argued that Thorpe was infringing on the Robot Wars trademark, and using it for his own purposes. He said that Thorpe made the matter public by posting court documents to Web sites for the robot community to read, and that Thorpe was no longer using his influence to promote the Robot Wars name. And he claimed that Thorpe was trying to form another company with Trey Roski behind Profile's back.

Although neither Thorpe nor Plotnicki wanted to be quoted for this story, conversations with them, along with a labyrinth of court documents, reveal a striking difference in their styles and approach to business.

Born in Queens, the 45-year-old Plotnicki comes from a street-smart New York background. He played in a band during the disco years, before moving into management. He doesn't know much about robots, but he's a sharp businessman, seasoned at using lawyers and the courtroom when needed. Plotnicki himself admits he considers litigation a dance, something that's necessary to doing business. Having worked in the music industry, Plotnicki says, he knows that lawsuits are an inevitability, especially when creative people reach some degree of success and want to turn on the people who got them there. He sees little difference between robot builders and garage rock bands. And he has enough money to keep several suits going simultaneously.

Thorpe, on the other hand, is a native Californian, and up until this dispute was completely naive about business and the law. A model builder and performance artist, he's never had much money. The few things he had going for him during the legal battle were that he was the father of robotic combat, he could generate lots of publicity, he had goodwill among the robot community, and he still owned the Robot Wars trademark. But he is just as stubborn as Plotnicki.

Negotiations broke down into ugly shouting. Court documents allege that at one point, Plotnicki told one of Thorpe's attorneys, "I will pursue [Marc Thorpe] past bankruptcy and destroy him and his family."

Plotnicki is quick to point out that an affidavit was filed denying he made this statement.

"The personalities involved in this case overshadowed any legal concepts," says Casper Ewig, one of Thorpe's legal counsel. "The legal concepts in this case were not that difficult. The acrimony in the case was probably the greatest I've come across, as a lawyer."

More mediation continued, with counterproposals sent back and forth. Another settlement was reached in December 1997, which would force Thorpe to relinquish his percentage in exchange for producing three events a year. Thorpe said the wording of the agreement had again been altered from when it was first agreed upon, and refused to sign it. He attempted to obtain a court order allowing him to produce the 1998 Robot Wars event, but a judge denied it.

What Thorpe and Plotnicki hadn't anticipated was the passion and sense of propriety among the robot community. Builders were following the dispute, and had some ideas of their own.

A Robot Wars Forum appeared on the Internet, moderated by Carlo Bertocchini, a robot builder from Belmont. Among the postings about wheels and Vantec speed controllers were discussions about Profile and the dispute. Plotnicki's attorneys contacted Bertocchini, asking to enlarge the Web site's disclaimer that explained it was not officially connected to Robot Wars. Bertocchini refused, saying his existing disclaimer was sufficient.

A posting went up on the forum, announcing a new event called Robotica, produced by Bay Area roboteer and computer programmer Gary Cline, scheduled for August 1998 at the Cow Palace. Builders started registering their robots and booking San Francisco plane flights and hotel reservations.

Another posting appeared in July, announcing a 1998 Robot Wars event in August at Fort Mason, to be produced by Mentorn, the British production company that licensed Robot Wars for the U.K. Three weeks later another posting announced it was canceled, due to lack of support.

To Plotnicki, Cline and Bertocchini were infringing upon the Robot Wars name, taking over its goodwill. Both men were veteran competitors in Robot Wars events. Bertocchini's Biohazard robot, a titanium-covered marvel of simplicity, was the reigning heavyweight champion, and very popular among both crowds and builders.

Plotnicki sued them both.

Bertocchini settled out of court, and gave up the Internet forum. He does not want to talk about the case.

Cline insists he did nothing wrong.

"It was a party. That's all. I was sponsoring it. I charged no admission. Everybody loved it. People just wanted to have an event. I was the sponsor. The fucking asshole sued me for $30 million. It's like, forget it, you know? He blames everybody else for his bad reputation."

With one week to go before Robotica, Cline canceled it, and settled the lawsuit. He ended up spending $15,000 out of pocket, some of which went toward printing up Robotica T-shirts.

"I'm sure homeless people are wearing them right now," he says.

Whatever antipathy the robot community might have previously felt toward Plotnicki was now more solidified than ever. These lawsuits weren't just directed at Marc Thorpe. Now it was personal. How could he sue people like Cline and Bertocchini? They helped create the very sport. Do you need permission from the NFL to throw a football in your back yard? Disgusted, some participants turned their back on the sport entirely. Others, like Team Blendo, opted to wait until the dust settled. Builders expanded their personal Web sites to include more information about Profile and the ongoing legal actions.

Model builder Jim Smentowski started following the conflict, and constructed a comprehensive Web collection of legal documents and Internet postings. His site includes an anonymous forum, where robot people log on, call each other names, and bitch about Plotnicki and the fate of Robot Wars. From his position as unofficial chronicler, Smentowski sees that the community is still buzzing.

"Everybody that's out there is either they don't care, or if Marc's gonna be involved, they want to be involved. There's been a lot of people who said, 'Screw it.' It's unfortunate. Robot Wars was getting to the point where it was going to be huge."

Unable to meet his debts, and still facing $8.9 million in legal actions from Plotnicki, Marc Thorpe filed for bankruptcy.

With no Robot Wars events on the horizon, the Robot Wars Web site remained frozen. The official Robot Wars Forum was listless and boring. Roboteers wondered what was going to happen next. If anything.

In February of this year, Trey Roski incorporated the name BattleBots, opened an office South of Market, and drew up his own set of rules for another robotic combat event. An early Robot Wars competitor, Roski had also designed the Robot Wars Web site and helped promote the events at Fort Mason.

Now he was going to save the sport he loved, and Roski had the resources to do it. His family claims to be the largest real estate developer and property owner in Los Angeles, and owns portions of the Los Angeles Kings and Los Angeles Lakers sports teams.

The following month, a court finally approved a settlement between Thorpe and Plotnicki. The primary points were these: Thorpe had to give up all interest in anything Robot Wars, was not to compete in any robotic events for five years, and was told by the court to serve as an ambassador of goodwill. He was obligated to promote Robot Wars, disclose all competition of which he was aware, and in a particularly bizarre clause was ordered to rehabilitate the reputation of Plotnicki and Robot Wars, an impossible task for any one man. (Although the litigation is settled, Plotnicki believes Thorpe's bankruptcy is phony, and continues pursuing those people who loaned Thorpe the necessary money for him to file bankruptcy, including Trey Roski.)

Plotnicki then sent out a release, optimistically announcing the settlement, the formation of Robot Wars LLC, and the plans for a San Francisco Robot Wars event in August.

At approximately the same time, Roski announced he was producing the first-ever BattleBots event, to be held in Long Beach, one week earlier than Robot Wars.

Plotnicki fired back with yet another lawsuit, accusing Roski of unfair competition, interference with the Robot Wars business, and trade dress infringement, among other allegations. He sent an e-mail to robot competitors, claiming that the BattleBots event would cause Robot Wars "enormous economic harm." Roski e-mailed the same people one day later, assuring them that his event would definitely take place. He had powerful lawyers of his own, and he wasn't afraid of Plotnicki.

After more legal back-and-forth, a U.S. District Court judge denied Plotnicki's motion to block BattleBots, concluding that he failed to demonstrate any irreparable harm, and at one point "offered nothing more than rank speculation." Plotnicki immediately voluntarily dismissed his case without prejudice.

Three weeks later, Plotnicki sent out a letter to those people who had registered for Robot Wars '99, canceling the event and returning their fees. Those who had already registered were eligible for a drawing, in which the prize would be the AIBO Robotic Dog.

The saga is still not finished. Although he now owns all aspects of Robot Wars, Plotnicki continues the legal dance with Trey Roski and BattleBots, insisting that Thorpe's bankruptcy is filed in bad faith. Thorpe's bankruptcy, and potential liquidation of his assets, is still dependent on the outcome of this.

Marc Thorpe passes the time creating metal sculptures at his home. He plans to display them at a San Francisco art gallery later this year. He still gets calls from people wanting information about Robot Wars.

Plotnicki sold portions of Profile Records' catalog to Arista, but is still in the music business. He releases a variety of ambient, techno, folk, and jazz recordings through his labels Astor Place and Smile. The British game-show version of Robot Wars -- featuring obstacle courses and tug-of-war competitions -- attracts millions of BBC viewers weekly. Plotnicki is vague about the possibility of staging another live Robot Wars event, but hints that episodes of the Robot Wars U.K. program may soon be airing on American television.

Because of a nondisparagement clause in their settlement, neither Plotnicki nor Thorpe will comment about the dispute.

Many stars of the original Robot Wars, including Mark Setrakian (Team Sinister), Carlo Bertocchini (Team Biohazard), Jim Smentowski (Team Hercules), and Gary Cline, participated in last month's BattleBots event. Biohazard coasted out of the arena, retaining the heavyweight championship for another year. And also in August, Smentowski received a summons from Plotnicki, demanding all documents in his possession that relate to Marc Thorpe, Robot Wars, or BattleBots.

With their recent success, Trey Roski and Greg Munson are already planning another BattleBots later this year in Las Vegas. They say this first event cost them $500,000 including attorneys' fees, but neither will discuss anything that has to do with Robot Wars.

And robot builders are already considering what to bring to the next event. Some will create a beautiful work of art, like Team Sinister's Mark Setrakian, who wowed the BattleBots crowd with a 400-pound metallic crablike robot. And others, like Napa high-tech executive David Chapman, are in the game for the attention, and the chance to entertain.

At BattleBots in the Long Beach Pyramid, Chapman's robot consists of a pink plastic children's jeep, with a dirty stuffed rabbit sitting behind the wheel, and next to it a stuffed bear, wrapped with bloodied bandages. Attached to the jeep's grill is a Barbie doll with multicolored hair, carrying a flimsy battle-ax made of tinfoil. A bumper sticker is slapped onto the back of the jeep, reading "I Brake for Animals." This contraption looks like something a kid left out in the driveway, but unbelievably, it has advanced to the semifinals.

"Losing to Barbie on the initial round is very embarrassing, but getting eliminated by Barbie, that's like the pits!" exclaims Chapman. "I mean, can you imagine? You spend all this time building this ferocious robot with a name like Carnivore, or Scorpion Bot, and a fucking kiddie toy drives you into the saw blades and that's it! It's game over. You're eliminated. It's gotta suck!"