Tension and Release

Mark Bradford built the world's biggest, coolest catapult. But could the unlucky artist make it work?

Mark Bradford is 35, but he dresses and sounds like a teenage snowboarder. He talks slow, even for someone born in Louisiana, and half of his syrup-thick words seem to be either "cool" or "fun." Operating a crane is fun, he says. Recycling is cool. And it's especially fun to hunt for cool stuff in scrap yards.

But on a Tuesday morning at the tail end of February, Mark was having no fun at all. The wind was blowing from the east, the worst direction, and he thought there was a 50 percent probability that his latest grand project, the Refrigerator Throwing Machine, would collapse into a giant heap of twisted metal. All the world would be watching -- or at least, all the Fox network audience -- and they would know that Mark Bradford had failed. That would not be cool, not cool at all.

Mark tried to focus on that other, more cheerful, possibility: That the throwing machine would successfully catapult a 170-pound fridge hundreds of feet down an empty road. That Guinness World Records: Primetime would broadcast his triumph across the nation, and afterward he'd land big sculpture commissions. That those gigs would make him some money before artistic poverty drove his girlfriend nuts.

The sled crash: Going 65 mph, Mark flew off the sled and staggered away.
Courtesy of Jupiter Entertainment
The sled crash: Going 65 mph, Mark flew off the sled and staggered away.
Azaba at the Art Car Parade: Elizabeth sat astride the monster's neck.
Mike Stravato
Azaba at the Art Car Parade: Elizabeth sat astride the monster's neck.
Tension: When the machine was cocked, Azaba rose in the air.
Deron Neblett
Tension: When the machine was cocked, Azaba rose in the air.
And release: The fridge spilled its guts on the pavement.
Deron Neblett
And release: The fridge spilled its guts on the pavement.
Ready for bot battle: The Scrap Daddy team.
Ready for bot battle: The Scrap Daddy team.
The Junkyard Warriors: The Scrap Daddies' hovercraft flew - for a while.
The Learning Channel
The Junkyard Warriors: The Scrap Daddies' hovercraft flew - for a while.

Mark used a crane to lift the machine's humongous throwing arm atop its equally humongous base. The contraption stood 59 feet tall, and it rose from the empty land of an unbuilt subdivision like a cell phone antenna tower crossed with a giant asymmetrical seesaw. Except for the heavy-duty Grade 8 bolts, all of its parts were things Mark had scavenged from scrap yards: boat trailers, a lamppost, elevator cables, discarded metal and the like. It was the biggest thing Mark had ever built.

The machine, in fact, seemed likely to break a world's record. Mark wasn't sure which one -- longest refrigerator toss? biggest catapult? biggest freestanding trebuchet? -- but the important thing was that the Guinness show planned to film a flying fridge on Saturday.

Saturday. Four days away. Everything would be cool, Mark tried to tell himself. But every time he moved, he felt the failure of his last TV project.

Three weeks earlier, he and his girlfriend, Elizabeth Winningham, had entered a race of "super-modified" sleds made of snow shovels; the extreme sport has become a tradition in Angel Fire, New Mexico. For Elizabeth, the race's first female competitor, Mark had built a heavyweight sled, a stainless-steel dragster-on-skis that weighed more than 500 pounds. It had a seat belt and roll cage.

Mark was competing in the lightweight category, where a sled could weigh no more than 100 pounds. His stainless-steel creation wasn't much more than a metal T on skis, and he rode it lying with the steering column between his legs. No roll cage, no seat belt.

He was excited that Competition, an Arts & Entertainment sports show, filmed his preparations in Houston, including the tricky business of testing sleds without snow. To check a parachute-brake, for instance, he put Elizabeth's sled on a trailer and towed it down the street. His ten-year-old daughter hit the button that released the parachute. With the cameras rolling, the chute blossomed right on cue, and Mark tasted the sweet televised success.

The same A&E show filmed his test runs in Angel Fire. On the first run, Mark's lightweight sled zipped cleanly over the snow. But on the second, going 65 miles an hour, he braked before the hill gave way to a flat stretch. The sled rolled, and Mark flew out. The steering column hit him square in the crotch.

He thought he'd been split down the middle, that his intestines might be spilling onto the snow. He checked: Everything was still attached. Bloody, swollen and hurting, but attached.

At the hospital, someone photographed his battered testicles: big as avocados, and just as dark. Mark also had broken his sacrum, the bone at the tail end of his spinal column, and torn his urethra.

He spent four days in the New Mexico hospital, and another three weeks taking brain-fuzzing painkillers. Now, less than a week before the throwing machine's D day, he still walked with a limp and peed through a catheter.

When Mark looked down the road leading to his site, the east wind hit him in the face. The machine swayed, and Mark was scared. He could feel failure in his groin.

Technically, the throwing machine is a trebuchet, the kind of simple catapult that medieval warriors used to hurl stones at their enemies. When the machine is cocked, a heavy weight dangles from the short end of the seesaw. Down below, at the long end, the payload snuggles in a sling. When the trigger is released, the weight drops to the ground, and the payload arcs upward, goes alley-oop over the axle, then flies through the air.

Mark had seen trebuchets on a TV documentary, but he wasn't interested in historical accuracy. In high school, history was one of those subjects that left Mark cold. He says he has attention deficit disorder, and it's easy to imagine him at Lamar High School, daydreaming and wriggling in his seat. Reading and math came hard to him, but somehow, art was easy.

After graduating, he worked as a carpenter for a couple of years until a friend's mother, herself an artist, talked him into studying art at Houston Community College. He soon dropped his academic courses in favor of welding big metal sculptures. His landlord let him display them in his apartment complex's front yard: weird thronelike chairs made of steel vines; a half-dog, half-bug creature; a smiling face with spiky hair. For the '90 Art Car Parade, he built the Steamroller, a giant cylinder powered by human beings who ran inside it like hamsters in an exercise wheel.

Along the way, Mark got married, had a daughter and got divorced. He says he's matured a lot in the last decade, and that it shows in his art. "Mature" isn't the first word that pops to mind when you consider Mark's shiny, frenetic oeuvre, but over the years, his pieces have become more complex and polished -- as in polished with a fiberglass grinding disk. Mark says he's always learning something new about metal and motors, and those new ideas often show up later in his works.

If you live in Houston, you've almost certainly seen Mark's work -- if not in the Art Car Parade, perhaps at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, where his Watch Owl stands guard outside the south gate. Or, even more likely, you've noticed the one-man show that Mark has installed in his own front yard, at 100 Heights Boulevard, across the street from the Art Car Museum (see "Revolution in Chrome," by Lisa Gray, July 6, 2000). The bungalow he rents is almost entirely obscured by Carmadillo, a 50-foot-long creature whose gazillion shiny scales cover a pickup truck's motor and a van's frame. Other works rotate in and out, as Mark sells them or tires of them. In March the yard included his and Elizabeth's sleds from Angel Fire; several 12-foot-tall dancing creatures; and Azaba, a long-legged stainless-steel monster with eyes made of big blue marbles.

Mark usually loses interest in his creations as soon as they're finished -- for instance, he doesn't bother to keep Carmadillo in driving condition -- but he still has a soft spot for Azaba. He created the monster for last year's Art Car Parade, but unlike most of the wheel-based artwork, Azaba didn't begin life as a car. Mark built the creature like an especially complex piece of sculpture that just happened to clutch wheels in its four clawed feet. Motor-scooter engines hid inside Azaba's legs, and the driver sat inside the beast's belly, invisible to viewers. For the parade, Elizabeth dressed as a half-naked prehistoric babe and sat astride Azaba's neck, waving to the crowd while Mark drove. They won the Judges' Choice Award.

You might have expected that to be the high point of Mark's involvement with the beast, that he'd park the monster in the front yard and forget him. But Mark didn't lose interest in this creation, and while designing the Refrigerator Throwing Machine, he hatched a grand plan. Instead of using just any massive hunk of metal as the heavy weight, he'd use Azaba. The monster would show TV viewers what Mark's work is all about: recycling, and movement, and fun. And perhaps most important, Azaba would look wicked cool dangling high in the air.

At a coffeehouse, Mark sketched his vision. He'd remove Azaba's engines and wheels, and give him a canister to clutch to his belly. The canister would be open, so Mark could add or subtract hunks of scrap metal to adjust the machine's throwing power. More weight meant more power, but also, more risk that the machine might buckle.

Math and physics, of course, had never been Mark's best subjects. He's a hands-on thinker, and so he could put his hands on something, he built two scale models of the trebuchet -- one three feet tall, another 20 feet tall -- and tested them in his driveway and backyard. Tinkering revealed the machine's secrets. To get the farthest possible throw, he found, the sling should release when the long arm is at a 48 degree angle from the ground. Earlier, and the payload flies high instead of long; later, and it smacks the ground too soon.

But even the 20-foot model used a counterweight that was only one-twentieth the size of Azaba, who in his modified state weighed 6,000 pounds. Mark did the math and got someone to check it; he found that when the full-scale throwing machine flew into action, Azaba would exert 10,000 pounds of force. The axle, he knew, was super-strong, made of 410 stainless -- but was it strong enough to withstand that? What about the chain that held Azaba? And what if the whole assembly began to twist? Could it bear the weight? If Azaba crashed to the ground, could Mark rebuild him?

The Scrap Daddies remind you of Peter Pan's Lost Boys. Some of the guys look like artists, others like construction workers. They drifted around the throwing machine like kids at a clubhouse. Mark called W.T. "my main man," but he didn't know W.T.'s last name, or Cazz's, either. B.J. (Walter), whose cell phone sometimes connected the throwing machine site to civilization, turned out to be a lawyer. B.J. said he didn't have a lot of fun as a kid, so he's determined to have it now.

Mark, though, was not having fun. TV cameras make him tense even before they arrive. At Angel Fire, before his accident, he and Elizabeth had a fight. "I can't listen now," he told her. "My mind is on 20 different things." That, she said, was his problem.

Now, once again, he was preparing for a date with a camera crew. He hadn't mentioned his sledding disaster to the Guinness producers, so they didn't know he was hurt or that he'd fallen behind schedule. He didn't want to scare them. He figured he could always tell them later, once the machine was working. Once they were about to film a triumph, not another disaster.

It's only natural that the newest generation of TV shows gravitates toward Mark. Extreme sports and "real world" programming concern themselves with "real" people and events, but in fact they show a heightened reality, a world that, like Mark's sculptures, is polished, bigger than life, and moves fast. Budgets are low; the announcers are breathless; and vividness always trumps subtlety. Above all else, you must capture the viewer's attention.

In '97, during Mark's first sled race at Angel Fire, he snagged a few seconds on Competition. He had a great-looking sled -- it resembled a ladybug on skis -- and a great back story. As Mark began his 15-second run down the ski slope, the announcer told viewers that the sculptor, a first-time racer from snowless Houston, had built a sled and entered Angel Fire only days after watching another extreme-sled race on TV. The bug sled zipped down the hill, but at the bottom, it failed to brake, and Mark crashed, unhurt but humbled, into the padding at the end of the run. His 15 seconds of fame were over, and the cameras moved to the next entrant.

Television got into Mark's blood like a tropical disease. He returned to Angel Fire and looked for other opportunities to feed his fever. In October he and two friends, Sean Ham and Ken Crimins, flew to London to compete in Junkyard Wars, a Learning Channel combination of reality TV and game show. In each episode, two competing teams are plopped into a junkyard, given a surprise assignment to build a particular working machine out of scrap, and assisted by an expert on that particular species of machinery. Mark, Sean and Ken christened themselves the Texas Scrap Daddies.

In their first round of competition, the teams were assigned to build dragsters. The dragster expert irritated Mark, who was used to doing things his own way. The guy knew racing cars, but he'd always built them from brand-new parts, not the unpredictable flotsam of junkyards. But as the cameras rolled, the Scrap Daddies pieced together a car from a lawn mower, a golf cart and a wrecked motorcycle. They won the race by one one-thousandth of a second and advanced to the semifinals. Mark savored the taste of televised triumph.

For the next episode, and the next round of competition, they were assigned to build a hovercraft. Once again, the expert irritated Mark, but once again, the Scrap Daddies produced a functioning machine, one able to float six inches off the ground. But on the racecourse, with massive Sean in the driver's seat, the hovercraft tipped, and the Scrap Daddies lost.

For his next TV outing, he wanted a team he unambiguously controlled. He'd already begun to build fighting robots to compete on Comedy Central's BattleBots. Elizabeth argued against the plan -- the radio controls were expensive, the competition required an entry fee, and they'd have to pay their own way to Las Vegas -- but Mark could not be swayed. He built one robot for each weight category, and in November he, Elizabeth and four members of the Scrap Daddy crew headed to Las Vegas.

Most fighting robots look like metal boxes with a bad attitude, or vacuum cleaners gone over to the dark side. But Mark, as always, had to do things his own way. His four bots resembled a family of stainless-steel turtles that had somehow evolved spikes and sharp whirling blades. Unfortunately style didn't count. All of Mark's bots were drubbed, and one even bled oil onto the arena, creating a mess that took a half-hour to clean. The spectators hated the delay. When Mark appeared to fight his next robot, they booed him.

He yearned for redemption. It was too soon to design new war machines for BattleBots; the next competition was a year away. But in December the Guinness show sent e-mail to former Junkyard Wars contestants, seeking a contraption that would throw refrigerators. Mark signed up.

Naturally, Elizabeth objected that the project made no economic sense. Mark figured that even using scrap, the throwing machine would cost $3,000 to build. If it worked, the Guinness people would pay a $500 honorarium.

Mark didn't care. He justified the expense by telling himself that he could later convert the throwing machine's base into an outdoor studio. He'd erect the frame in his yard, wrap it with tarps to make a giant tepee, and use the heavy-duty axle as a hoist for big projects.

He practically vibrated with purpose. At his morning coffeehouse sessions, he sketched a zillion different versions of the throwing machine. Sometimes he dreamed of using a robot to release the machine's trigger. For maximum effect, he imagined placing an old trailer where he expected the fridge to land. The Guinness people would film him dressed as a deliveryman. He'd dial a phone and say, "Mrs. Jones, your fridge is ready for delivery." And then: KABLOOIE! Right through the roof! More twisted metal than you'd see after a tornado!

Those ideas never got off the ground, but Mark kept sketching. When he found a pair of boat trailers in a scrap yard, he changed the drawings to incorporate the trailers into his base. He'd been saving some old industrial driers discarded by a business. Those he traded to a scrap dealer, who in return hauled pieces of the throwing machine to and from the site. Other scrap dealers were happy to lend Mark refrigerators. If the throwing machine smashed them against the pavement, great. It would save the scrap yard the trouble of crushing them.

A friend of Elizabeth's dad arranged for Mark to use the site for free. The unbuilt subdivision, a west Houston stretch of nothing but road and pine trees, was perfect. He could set up the trebuchet where the road dead-ended, and the developer didn't seem worried that a flying fridge might crack the brand-new pavement.

Mark talked the Guinness people into paying for his crane rental, but they refused to pay him more than $500 for the appearance. Think of it this way, they told him. If you had to buy this time on national TV, it would cost you $500,000. You're not just getting $500. You're getting $500,000 of publicity.

When things were going well at the site, Mark envisioned a cool future for the throwing machine. If everything worked, he could perform at tractor pulls; a friend proposed an airline ad: The Refrigerator Throwing Machine would heave a crash-test dummy through the air; the dummy would splat spectacularly onto the pavement; a voice would say, "Yes, you could fly cheaper…"

Maybe everything would work. Maybe the future would be glorious. Maybe.

Tuesday afternoon, Mark and the crew attached Azaba to the short end of the seesaw. The short end sank, and the long end rose high in the air. The machine was complete.

On Wednesday, the crew began running tests. With the crane, they eased the throwing arm up and down. Nothing buckled, nothing twisted. So far, so good.

For the first real throw, they loaded a sandbag into the sling. If something went wrong, a sandbag would wreak less havoc than a fridge. To cock the machine -- that is, to pull the long arm down, so that Azaba rose in the air -- a cable had to be attached high on the long arm, at a spot roughly 35 feet in the air. The cable then could be attached to a truck, or the crane, or even pulled, tug-of-war-style, by a line of strong guys.

Elizabeth wasn't around to remind Mark that he was still weak, that he was still wearing a catheter, that he was supposed to take it easy. Carrying the cable, he climbed the machine, starting with Azaba, then finding handholds and footholds on the stainless-steel crossbars like a rock climber ascending a cliff.

After he clambered down, he and the crew gathered a couple of hundred feet to one side. The crane pulled the cable taut, and the long arm sank back toward the crane as Azaba rose in the air. Then, on signal, the cable was released. Just as planned, Azaba plummeted, and the long arm swung up -- but it hadn't yet risen, alley-oop, over the axle, when the sandbag escaped the sling. Instead of flying a hundred feet down the road, it hurtled 40 feet behind the machine.

Just a test run, Mark told himself.

He checked the machine for signs of weakness. He reassured himself that the parts that worried him most -- the axle and the skinny lamppost end of the throwing arm -- looked fine. Then he lengthened the sling so the payload wouldn't release prematurely. He tested more sandbags, and they flew, straight and true, down the road.

It was getting dark. Thursday's weather forecast called for rain, and Mark worried about falling another day behind schedule. He decided it was time for the moment of truth. He and the crew loaded a refrigerator into the sling.

Once again, he climbed the long arm to attach the cable, and once again, the crane pulled down the arm so that Azaba dangled in the air. Mark and the crew retreated to a tree a few hundred feet to the side. The machine might throw a fridge backward, or even sideways -- but it wouldn't throw it that far sideways. Mark hoped.

He was as tense as one of his cables. He set his video camera on night vision. The crew counted down: 3-2-1.

On cue, the long arm arced up through the air. Azaba sank and swung under the crossbar. When the seesaw stood almost perfectly vertical, the sling ejaculated the fridge into the night sky -- too early, too high, but magnificent. The white GE tumbled, end over end, in the right direction, until it splatted more than a hundred feet down the empty road. The fridge's innards spilled onto the pavement, and the crew erupted into cheers, jumping up and patting each other's backs like a high school football team that had won the playoffs.

Later, there would be other good moments. That night at home, Mark would play the silent black-and-white video for Elizabeth. On Friday and Saturday, he'd send other fridges flying further. And on Sunday, with his daughter watching, the weather-delayed Guinness people would film his crowning triumph -- 312 feet! six seconds of hang time! surely some sort of world record!

But in some ways, that first flight was the best. He was still immersed in the project, not yet thinking about his next conquest. As the white GE arced through the air, he felt the sweetness of release. Everything was cool. At last he was having fun.

To see Mark's video of the first fridge toss, visit www.scrapdaddy.com. Because of the impending writers' strike, Guinness World Records: Primetimehas not scheduled an airdate for the refrigerator toss.

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