What's it like to compete at Robot Wars?
Our odyssey began on Sunday, June 24th, when we caught an afternoon flight on United out of Portland, Oregon to Chicago. After a short layover and a snack at O'Hare, we boarded a 747-400 and flew out toward London just as darkness fell. We were way back in the rear of the plane, and it was packed. My son Max had his new Game Boy Advance to keep him occupied, my wife Lissa had a book to read, and I got some sleep. Monday afternoon
Our odyssey began on Sunday, June 24th, when we caught an afternoon flight on United out of Portland, Oregon to Chicago. After a short layover and a snack at O'Hare, we boarded a 747-400 and flew out toward London just as darkness fell. We were way back in the rear of the plane, and it was packed. My son Max had his new Game Boy Advance to keep him occupied, my wife Lissa had a book to read, and I got some sleep.
Monday afternoon-- Heathrow is not a pleasant airport in the summer, and this was the hottest week of the year. The flight got in at about noon local time. We wound thru a long and hot line to show our passports, and I exchanged a few dollars for pounds to have cab fare. Took a Black Taxi from the airport to the Novotel in Hammersmith. The lobby was torn up for a remodel, and the desk crew was not helpful. After a bit, they figured out who we were and gave us two non-connecting rooms. The rooms were very hot and difficult to get any air thru, but everybody got a nap and a shower. Max and I went for a short walk around the block to see what there was to see.
There was a short Roboteers meeting at 6:00 PM in the hotel. We got cash back for cab fare, and twenty pounds per team member to cover incidentals for Monday and Tuesday. The staff arranged to have all teams escorted to 'the tube' the next morning at 8:00 and to be walked into Earls Court to find our 'bots. Went down the block from the hotel to Lattimer's Pub and Thai food for dinner (very good -- but don't try to order iced tea in England). Got everyone settled back at the hotel, and I went off to find Tim and Dave from Team Jawbreaker. They had mentioned a little pub nearby, and I found them just leaving. We went to Lattimer's for a nightcap. I left about 11:00 and tried to get some sleep. Got a few hours in, as I recall.
Tuesday morning -- We had ordered breakfast for 7:00 to 7:30. It failed to arrive, so down to the lobby for a scone, juice, and tea. We complained to the desk; they made excuses. We tried to get into connecting rooms; they requested that we check back later. Off to the tube station and on to Earls Court. The Robot Wars people had promised that Earls Court was just across the street from the tube, and so it was. What they failed to mention was that once we were across the street, we had to walk completely around three sides of the enormous hall to get to the only entrance that Roboteers could use -- a good half-mile. Then we all stood around and leaned on the wall for half an hour until they decided that we could go inside.
One team at a time, we were lead thru the pits to find our crate. Ours was just about in the middle, and away from the "spectator area" that would plague some teams with constant requests for autographs and any discarded robot pieces. Three of the four women's rest rooms were locked, and the fourth was far across at the end of the hall. Security wasn't happy to have women wandering thru the length of the hall, so they locked it too! We unpacked 'Run Away' and sort of hung out. Lissa and Max took off back to the hotel, and I waited to tech inspect the 'bot. Had some trouble with the Team Delta fail-safes built into the controller interfaces, so plugged in the Futaba hardware failsafe units that I brought "just-in-case". They worked perfectly. Weighed in at 99.5 kilos (with a 100-kilo limit).
Some of the 'bots were really having trouble getting assembled. One in particular, "The Wife", was a horrifically complex assemblage of pneumatics/hydraulics that looked like a dressmaker's dummy that had been assimilated by the Borg. The team worked on this for days, but eventually had to give up when their fail-safes wouldn't work. The poor thing looked more than a bit fragile and would likely not have survived the first combat round even if it had been running. "Conquering Clown" was another "fragilebot", with a team that wandered thru the pits in full clown regalia honking bicycle horns. I suspect that they were just trying to get into the spirit, but they didn't make any friends amongst the underslept Roboteers.
"The Million-Dollar Mouse" (our Robotica friends from Team Litewav) was backed against our pit. They were fur-covered and had a big angled blade spinner. Across the aisle was "The Revolutionist", a powerful tuna-can spinner who won the "best pit decoration" contest (had there been one), and had exaggerated sequin-covered Uncle Sam suits. Very flashy! To our left was "Close Enough" -- a twin gas-engined monster that never could get both engines running in combat. Very nasty looking, none the less! To our right was "Crockbot", who I never got to see compete.
Unpacking and tech took all day. The hall was hot, the air conditioning went on and off sporadically. The PA system was blaring for long periods and then would go silent. The lights would come on full, then die away to twilight levels. Walter (Red Virus) remarked to me that this must be some type of psychological torture designed to get a few of us to quit and go home. Left about 8:00 PM, and had a late dinner in the hotel Pub with family. Fish & Chips with mashed peas -- I liked it. Got to sleep by 11:00, but the change in time zones started a pattern of "wide awake at 2:00 AM and unable to sleep any more" that would continue for the whole trip.
Wednesday morning-- We had a good catered breakfast down in the parking lot at Earls Court. The catered food was very good throughout; eggs, bacon, sausages, potatoes, pastries, cheeses, juice, tea -- it was quick, hot, and good. There were two double-decker busses converted to mobile dining halls for seating and three support vehicles for cooking and buffet. Very nice!
The US championship had been shortened by some TNN programming genius to a single show. This meant that a round had to be cut out of the original plan of a 3-way battle, followed by two 2-way battles. They elected to do this by starting with a first round of 6-way battles! Psychologically, this was very bad. Five out of six teams would be instant 'losers'. It also proved to be very rough on the 'bots! Only about half of the robots survived the melee in a repairable condition. We fought in the third of four matches, which came off late in the day -- about 6:30, I think. Quick interviews with the leather-clad female (Rebecca Grant), and into the arena. We were matched with Panzer Mk. 2 (the eventual US champion), Drillzilla (an overweight "walker" -- finalist in the world championships), Cyclone (a nasty looking vertical spinner 'Nightmare' clone), Spartacus (a great big helmet with no real offense), and our buddies General Chompsalot (team Jawbreaker). The control booths were hot and crowded (a fan would have been nice). No instructions of any kind were provided -- just "3 - 2 - 1 - Activate!" I spun up the weapon and made a hard left-hand turn to go after Cyclone. Caught him in the side, but he turned into me and tore up the left-front corner of my plywood top pretty badly. After that, mayhem broke loose and I really don't know what happened. I remember being lifted by Panzer at one point, and my wedge showed impact marks from Drillzilla. I think that Panzer later rammed underneath from the side and tore my chain drive off. Both Cyclone (on his side) and I were pushed aside by a house 'bot. Spartacus was immobile on the other side of the arena. The other three were still at it at the end of 5 minutes. Judge's decision went to Panzer.
Back in the pits, I surveyed the damage. Everything was repairable. Our good buddy Dan Danknick was working tech support and found us some epoxy. I glued and clamped the plywood back into one piece. Sparticus and Cyclone were done. It was now about 8:00, and they threw everyone out of the pits -- no time to do the other repairs. They would have to wait. Thursday would be filled filming the remaining US Championship matches, and the "Annihilator" matches (start with six, one goes out, break, start with five, one goes out...). I was off 'til the tag team matches on Friday. I clamped the epoxy and we all went off to dinner. As I recall, we ended up back at the Hotel Pub for more Fish & Chips. To bed, but again up at 2:00 and unable to sleep.
Thursday morning-- The in-room breakfast worked today. Tea, cocoa, scone, roll with preserves, croissant, yogurt. Pretty tasty, really. Took the tube to the British Museum. Very impressive remodel of the courtyard -- soap bubble-like glass roof. I was actually recognized in the Egyptian section by a (Canadian?) tourist: "Say look, it's that robot fellow!" Wandered around without a real plan, and had lunch in the café. After lunch, just after pondering the "Harpy Tomb" exhibit, various chimes started going off. Nobody paid any attention. Then the full-scale alarms went off. Fire alarms. Out we went. No word on when/if we might get back in, so wandered off, with some difficulty, to Trafalgar Square and picked up "The Original London Tour" bus. Wandered all around and got off to take the included river cruise around the Themes. Bought a "Mind the Gap" mug at the Cleopatra's Needle gift stand, and got on another bus -- which proved to have trouble with their tour audio system. Missed the connection to the westbound line because of the audio glitch, became irritable, and things started to go badly. Eventually got a bus out of Piccadilly headed for Hammersmith. It was very crowded and nasty. I went back to the hotel, and Max/Lissa had dinner at the pizzeria nearby. Max was a hit. Watched "Banzai" on the television -- very odd show where the audience bets on silly things. Might be a hit in the US. Very little sleep again.
Friday morning-- I headed back to Earls Court with Max and Lissa to follow later. Got busy on the repairs that I couldn't get to on Wednesday. The chain was an easy fix -- just slip the chain back on and snug up the axle adjusters. The old "Robotica" motor that I had used to power the weapon had smoked (again), so I replaced it with the fresh spare I'd packed, and snugged up the slip clutches on the blades. About this time I noticed a flat rear tire. Somebody had punctured both sidewall and tube and gone unnoticed. Mike Morrow over at the JuggerBot table had a spare tube -- which was odd since their 'bots run foam cores. I traded a hat for the tube and thanked him. The special spring-loaded wedge retaining bolt wasn't working well, so I replaced it with the original solid mount bolt. I charged batteries and was ready to go.
The Pits looked a great deal different today. Lots more European teams had arrived, and many of the American bots had broken down and were gone. More teams had to share pits. We still had our space to ourselves. Lots of waiting. Lissa and Max showed up. Today it was very easy to get in to see the battles (we had been virtually banned from the audience area on Wednesday), and Max was in the stands pretty much all the time. Every time the security people at the gates switched around, you had new rules on getting into the arena, but today was good.
Eventually, we got loaded up for the tag team battles. We had arranged to team with the Jawbreaker guys. Tim and Dave had survived the opening round without damage, and had gone on to some additional fights on Thursday. Jawbreaker/Nasty Overbite/General Chompsalot is virtually bulletproof, and they were ready for a fight today. We were up against Falcon (Team Boltz) and a 'bot that the Robot Wars crew had loaned Team Joker to replace their missing 'bot (some shipping glitch had sent their 'bot into limbo). It was a tuna-can style spinner with a mace attached to the rim. I had some trouble in the staging area -- in my sleep-deprived state, I had completely forgotten the correct start-up sequence to get all the electronics happy after a removable-link power-up. I thought it might be a faulty switch problem on the interface. Dan Danknick dove in and eventually got us running, but neither of us figured out the real problem 'til the next day. The problem was that the "ignition" switch on the interface has to be turned on after power is supplied to the 4QD -- a left-over safety interlock from the original 4QD use as a golf cart controller.
3 - 2 - 1 - Activate! The General went out first and beat up on Falcon a bit, then I went out and seriously banged up the loner-bot. Falcon came out to help, and the General joined in. It was a glorious free-for-all. I backed Run Away off to the far end of the arena to take a ramming run at one of our opponents. Suddenly and without provocation Sir Killalot -- the biggest and nastiest house bot -- ran up behind Run Away, grabbed on with the hydraulic claw, and flipped us over! Then he tried to lift us up and throw us out of the ring. He didn't quite have the leverage, so Dead Metal came over to help. Run Away was simply too bulky for them to succeed, so Killalot roasted us for a bit over the flame pit, then slid us onto the flipper. One-and-one-half flips in the air later, we land on our wheels, but without our removable power link. Meanwhile, General C. has been holding his own against a double team from Joker and Falcon. "Cease" is called. We thought we were pretty well boned, what with Run Away dead in the middle of the ring. It took a while for the judges to come in with their decision: it went to us! The judges decided that the house 'bots were out-of-line and interfered with the match. We were well in control of the match at the time the house 'bots went berserk, so we moved on to the finals!
In the other semi, the twin JuggerBots (Tricerabot and Rosie the Riveter) got beat up by Drillzilla (DZ). DZ was teamed with Chris Harriman (Cyclone's driver) with another of the loaner 'bots: Tut Tut, a pyramid with an axe. DZ could have been teamed with a potted petunia for all it mattered -- DZ was technically a shufflebot "walker" and weighed in at better than 300 lbs. Four lozenge-shaped, full-length "feet" on each side were driven by cams and made a tremendous noise. The armor looked to be half an inch thick tempered aluminum, and it could reportedly run at 30 MPH. If it walked, then I can fly. It had won the Annihilator event, might have won the US championships (Panzer won our heat largely based on his carrying Run Away around the ring on his lifting arm), and would make the finals of the world championships -- but I'm getting ahead of myself.
A quick survey of Run Away revealed very little real damage. I shot an interview in the pits where I was asked to bad-mouth Sir Killalot and make some vague threats. Our "twin blades of death" weapon needed a re-tightening of the slip clutches, but that would have to wait for the morning, as we were being chased out of the pits again for the evening.
Saturday Morning-- The gods of sleep ignored my pleas for slumber again. I'm now a complete zombie. I patched-up Run Away and charged batteries. We shot an entryway interview with all the teams for the tag-team finals. They took a couple of takes, and kept asking the builders to make it "beefier". It was real WWF stuff. Dan Danknick had figured out the trouble in the power-up sequence we had the day before, so had no problem getting loaded into the arena today. The crowd today is huge -- completely packed to the 2000 seat capacity.
I was up first to take on whomever the other team sent in. Drillzilla came out against me, leaving Tut Tut in reserve. It was murderous. I was pushed directly into the flame pit, but was able to back out without any trouble. Lots of bashing -- one of my front tires went flat, and the steel steering arm on the other side actually tore. I could now only turn in a large arc or a slightly smaller arc. Tut Tut and General C. came out to add to the fight. The General didn't notice that The Pit was open, and got pushed in by DZ. Much to my amazement, the General was making a good try at clawing his way back out of the pit! His nose kept leaping up out of the opening like a dolphin going for a fish. Eventually, his power link came out, but it was a hell of an effort. Meanwhile, I keep moving trying to stay alive. On one big sweeping arc, Tut Tut moved into my path and I drive up one face of the pyramid and fall over onto one side. Powering up the weapon lets me squirm around a bit, but I can't flip back upright. The weapon motor starts to smoke a bit, so I give it up. The Refbot counts me out, and it's over.
Back to the pits. We crated up Run Away, packed up our spares and dirty clothes (great idea, Lissa!) in the shipping container and checked out of the arena. We were told we're all done, were free to go bye-bye, and that there would be a "wrap party" at some nearby pub the following night. We should stop by around 8:00 PM to find out where the party will be, and we can collect our appearance fee check at the party. I escort our crate over to the holding area, and manage to get our per-diem money for Sunday. We head off for dinner at the pizzeria where Lissa and Max ate the previous day. Max had been a hit, and the owner had tried to get him to kiss the waitress. Today, when he was back again, the waitress (owner's daughter) decided that he must have come back for his kiss. A pretty Italian woman gave Max's very first kiss to him in London. A good story to tell. To bed, perchance to sleep (not).
Sunday morning-- Decided to take a train out to Leeds Castle for the day. Grabbed the tube to Victoria station, and queued up for tickets. We were told that the tracks were undergoing repairs and that a bus would be used for part of the trip -- two hours each way instead of one hour. Upon asking about other day trip options, we were directed to another office around the corner -- which was closed. The information office next door over had brochures and such, but we thought Leeds Castle was still our best bet. Back into line for tickets. Reached the front of the line, and were told that the castle was closed today -- June 30th. Went back to the info office, realized that today was July 1st (not June 30th) and called to confirm that the castle was indeed open. We were directed to the now-open tour office where we could buy train tickets. The tour office refused to sell us tickets, although they admitted that usually they would. Back into the main queue, where we informed the ticket agent (same one from our second attempt) that today was not the 30th, and that we wanted tickets -- which he grudgingly provided along with the information that the train would leave from track 4 in three minutes. Rushing to track 4, we discovered no train at all, and found no one willing to discuss the destination of any of the trains. A likely looking train eventually pulled in, and on inquiring of the conductor as to whether this was the train to Leeds Castle we were told that he had no idea. Eventually, a different conductor advised us that -- yes, this train was the correct one, but that we shouldn't ask if it was going to Leeds Castle, but if it would take us to the stop just after East Umbrington (or some such).
OK, we were on the train. Things started to improve. The English countryside proved to be quite lovely and the further out of London we got, the more helpful people became and the more useful any requested information proved to be. We got to the station at which we were to transfer to a bus to bypass the track work, and boarded the bus with (relatively) little trouble. At a largely deserted station we boarded another train to continue our journey out towards Kent. At Maidstone, we left the train and boarded another coach to the actual castle grounds. By this time and at this distance from London, everyone was quite helpful and even volunteered useful information -- such as how to get to the castle ground gate from here and when the last busses leave for the return trip.
It was about 1:00 by the time we got to the castle, and it was beginning to get warm. The grounds were beautiful. We walked thru the 'Dog Collar Museum' -- purportedly the only one on the planet. I particularly like a small ivory carving of an 'overfed whippet'. Then we went off to tour the castle proper. We stopped for a pleasant lunch, and continued on to the hedge maze and grotto. Max went thru a couple of times, and I followed thru once. Ice cream bars for everyone, and a quick trip thru the aviary, then onto a crowded but cheerful tractor/wagon to the main entrance. We had a bit of a wait for the bus and then a bit of a wait at the station for the train. Got back to the Novotel about 7:00, and quickly showered and changed to run over to Earl's Court to find the location of the wrap party.
We arrived in time to catch just the very end of the "House Robot Challenge" where Tricerabot seriously kicked the invincible house bots around. We then got to see the finals of the world championships (Razor vs. Drillzilla). Turns out that the party would be at -- wait for it -- the Novotel that we just raced from to get here. Fine. Back thru the tube system one last time to the hotel. We strolled down to the party and picked up a couple pints of bitter. Max played pool. The appearance fee checks had been given out earlier at the event, so left my card with the "Money Lady" and hoped for the best. Had a little dinner at the pub, drank another bitter, and went off to bed.
Monday morning-- We were up fairly early for a quick breakfast in-room and a trip to Harrod's department store. Our tube train arrives, and Max wiggles in thru the outgoing crowd. The doors slam shut. Leaving Lissa and I standing on the platform. I yell thru the door to someone standing next to Max to push him out at Knightsbridge station. When we get to Knightsbridge, Max is patiently waiting on a bench for us.
Harrods is opening an hour late (10:00) in order to prepare for their 'annual sale preview'. The actual sale starts Wednesday, but they have pre-marked the prices down on the sale items. They won't sell you anything at the sale prices, but you're free to purchase anything at the regular prices and think about how much money you would have saved if you had been here a couple days later(?!?). We walk down the street and have a cup of coffee in the already-warm city and wait for the store to open.
Harrods is truly a wonder. The food court alone is worth the trip. I wanted a genuine English umbrella, and found a nice one in the gentleman's accessories section. The store clerk was perfect. He checked the back stock for me, and found a perfectly fine and serviceable umbrella for less than $100. He slipped it into the long and skinny Harrods green and gold plastic bag made especially for the purpose. Max found a cooking book, I bought "Starship Titanic" in paperback for the flight, and Lissa bought some tomato chutney. A quick tube ride back to the hotel where we checked out and waited for our black taxi.
Uneventful ride to the airport, but on arrival at the United check-in we find that our flight has been canceled. After a bit of a wait in line, we are re-scheduled for a very early flight the next morning, and are loaded on a bus which takes us to the Renaissance hotel near the airport. Sorry, no adjoining rooms available. Our first room has a rather alarming flow of water from the air conditioner forming a growing puddle on the floor. We are moved to adjoining rooms -- but the doors between rooms are locked and housekeeping has a key that will only open one of the two face-to-face doors. Eventually, another key is located and we settle in. Very nice rooms, and a superbly comfortable bed. I have, however, decided to stay up without sleep in an effort to re-synch my internal clock and try to speed my transition back to Pacific Daylight Time. We have vouchers for lunch, dinner, and breakfast at the hotel. The lunch buffet is very nice, as is the dinner. The bus back to the airport is set to pick us up at 4:00 AM, so the breakfast voucher is not of any use.
Tuesday morning-- We stumble down to the lobby and board one of the three busses. Check-in at the airport is uneventful, but another queue forms at the entrance to the international section of the terminal -- which has not yet opened! When it does, a single person checks the crowd in and examines tickets. The person who updates the video monitors is also perhaps a bit late coming in, as no info is available on the gate from which our flight is departing. Monitors suggest waiting in the lounge. We follow signs to the United lounge, and are thrown out -- "No sir, this is the red carpet lounge; perhaps you could go lean against a vending machine out in the lobby." Our flight is supposed to board at 6:15, and at 6:10 the monitors flash our gate number. We dash thru a labyrinth of signs that circle us around at least once and eventually find our gate. There is no plane at the gate. Is this the right gate? "Yes sir, it is." We have a seat. "Would you like to board early with your family?" Sure. "Right this way to the bus." Bus?
I didn't even know that they had the old-style walk-up boarding stairs for 747's. Our plane sat on the tarmac a fair distance away from the terminal. We were led off the bus, given Sherpa guides, and pointed up the incline into the clouds. Many passengers from the cancelled flight had apparently found seats on other craft -- the plane was only about 1/3 full. We spread out, and I did get a fair amount of sleep on the long flight to San Francisco. We stumbled through customs without incident, and found our way to the domestic flight to PDX. Max has run out of battery power for his Game Boy, and I find some batteries in a newsstand to get him going again. The flight to PDX and the drive home to Salem were without any trouble. I slept well in my own bed.
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