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A Veteran of the Junkyard Wars

Ron Toms is cooler than you.

Toms has jumped into the Grand Canyon and surfed down a dam and pioneered the ahead-of-its-time subscription underwear business. He goes out into the desert with a catapult and a bunch of watermelons and a shotgun and combines them in interesting ways. He wants to build a machine capable of throwing a school bus. He has spent nights sleeping in his car and has owned a dot-com and has generally had more adventures than one person is supposed to be allowed to have.

But even ignoring all that, Toms is still cooler than you -- because he's been on Junkyard Wars.

Damned near the best show on television, Junkyard Wars is engineer-geek nirvana. Two teams -- each of three regulars and one expert -- race to build a device assigned at the start of each episode, using only what they find in an actual, working scrap pile. Ten hours later, the teams pit their machines against each other for the crowning glory of... Well, just winning, really.

Toms tells the following story of his trip to the show. He dispels a few myths (the definition of "ten hours" is pretty flexible), illuminates a few mysteries (the junkyard is seeded with required parts) and just generally makes us feel inert and lazy and couch-bound.

Because Ron Toms is way cooler than us.

I was a fan of Junkyard Wars from the first time I heard about it. I thought to myself that I would love to be on that show, but I was busy working 90 or so hours a week for a hectic dot-com and sometimes I didn't even get to watch. Then two things happened: The dot-com failed the business plan reality test and laid everyone off, and the producers of Junkyard Wars discovered my web site -- Trebuchet.com.

A trebuchet is a particular type of catapult that uses a heavy counterweight as its source of power, to rotate an arm with a sling and hurl things. "Trebuchet" is an old French word meaning "to tumble." The projectiles from a trebuchet tend to fall end-over-end in the air.

When I was 12 years old, I had read a story of a king whose castle was under attack. The attacking army captured one of his sons and put him in a catapult, hurling him against the castle walls. I thought that if you could eliminate the wall, it might be a fun ride! So 12 years later I got some friends together and we built one. It had 1,200 pounds of counterweight, was 20 feet tall and was designed from the beginning to throw people. We spent a whole day throwing each other into a river until the machine self-destructed.

At the time the show's producers found Trebuchet.com, the site was just that one story and a simple bulletin board where people could exchange information on how to build catapults. Apparently, they lurked on the message board for a while, then sent invitations to myself and one of the other Trebuchet.com regulars who calls himself "The Melon Musketeer." We weren't allowed to talk to each other since we'd be competing. We also had to audition. They sent us a list of instructions: 1) Get a video camera. 2) Demonstrate how a machine works using anything you can find. 3) Etc....

Months before the show, we were each given the task of hurling a ten pound pumpkin 50 yards into a bathtub. We had to come up with a detailed design and a wish list of parts we would hope to find in the yard. The producers actually have real engineers review the plans, and they forward lots of questions and concerns back to us. The designs are pretty well established before anyone gets near the set.

I had decided that a modern air cannon needed to compete against something more modern than a 700 year old catapult design, so I created an entirely new design of catapult for the show. This was going to be a test of accuracy, and I knew I'd only have a limited amount of time to adjust the machine, so I designed something with all that in mind. My design stumped the engineers on the show, and they tried to talk me into building a more traditional model. But I was able to convince them that it was worth trying. Actually I don't think I convinced them it would work at all. I think they were willing to let me fail. It is a TV show after all, and a spectacular crash can be just as dramatic as a win.

Once we got to England, we had a day to rest, which was really only a half-day with the time change, then one day for the team to practice welding, get costumed and get familiar with the set. The experts had to wander the yard looking for all the parts we thought we'd need and alert the staff if something important was missing. Filming started the next morning.

The teams know nothing until the show. The Musketeer and I weren't allowed to talk to each other beforehand either. We weren't supposed to know what the other team was building. Of course, MM and I knew each other from the board, and he knew that I was a trebuchet architect. I knew that he was an air cannon engineer. So it wasn't much of a suprise.

The first two hours go by in a flash. It's a new environment, everone's getting to know each other, and the experts have to teach the teams all the principles of the device that's going to be built. By the time the plan is in everyone's head and most of the parts have been collected, it's time for a mandatory lunch. We didn't want to eat, we wanted to work on the project! But they made us sit down for half an hour. One of the guys on our team didn't like the British food (bangers and mash and peas) and started throwing wads of the food over the fence at the other team. We had a massive food fight! I was disappointed that they didn't put that on the show!

After lunch, it's a mad dash to get the thing built. There really isn't enough time. None of the welds are solid, we only have enough time to tack things together. None of the measurements were accurate. My track wasn't level enough to survive even one firing. The Musketeer's air cannon wasn't air-tight, either. Remember, this is TV. If it looks like a machine, it's a machine. Still, everyone wants to make it as authentic as possible, so every minute is used to get as much done as we can.

The big secret about the show is that there is an extra day between the build and the contest. They call it a "safety" day. The teams get the day off, but the experts and some real professional welders and mechanics come in and make sure the machines actually will work and no one will get hurt or killed. In some cases I heard that they will actually deconstruct a machine and re-build it from scratch all over again. Of course, with no cameras, real professionals, a partially built machine and all the parts at hand, the second day is a breeze.

This is really only fair though. Even though they say we have 10 hours, keep in mind that first and foremost this is a TV show. That means that every team member on the show has a cameraman following them around, getting in the way, and regularly stopping him and asking him to "do that thing again" so he can get a better angle or framing or something. We had to repeat some things four or five times. That can suck-up a half hour right there. Anytime we were about to do something important we had to first tell the cameramen and wait for them to get in position. Also the host likes to come in every hour or so for mini-interviews with the teams and the experts. We may be working frantically, but when they do this we have to stop, take a deep breath and chat a while. This is TV time, remember. The last 15 minutes can take an hour or more! Watch how fast the sun sets on some of the shows in the last 30 minutes.

After it was all over, my team won, but only due to a friction problem and a flawed strategy by the other team. For small projectiles (like pumpkins) the air gun is much more powerful than a trebuchet, but this is a contest for accuracy -- we had to drop the pumpkin over a wall into a circle of bricks. (They determined that a bathtub was too small.) Hitting the wall of bricks counted for 30 points, but getting it into the circle without hitting the wall was worth 100 points. With only three shots apiece, the strategy to win was to lob it into the circle.

Unfortunately, the air cannon had a friction problem. Not enough power and the pumpkin got stuck in the barrel. Enough power to clear the barrel, and the pumpkin sailed about 30 yards too far! So they shot a high lob, and the wind blew the pumpkin off course to the side of the castle. No points.

We fired, but I had too much counterweight and we overshot by about nine feet. No points. The air cannon team should have recognized that the wind was a real problem, and level their cannon for a direct hit for only 30 points. This way they would be guaranteed a hit -- they had more than enough power for this. But no, they tried another lob and missed again. No points.

We adjusted our weight, and hit right at the base of the brick wall. A direct hit -- 30 points! The cannon had one shot left and now their only hope for a win was to get the lob. But the gusty wind killed it again. Zero total points for the air cannon.

It was great fun, but also very hard and incredibly stressful knowing that everyone in the world will see you and your handywork! There's a lot of pressure, too. I didn't even realize that one of my knee pads was on too tight, all day, and had cut off the circulation in my leg. I couldn't feel anything in that leg for a couple of days!

Between all the excitement, the time difference, an unusually severe heat wave and a hotel that didn't have air conditioning (typical for England) I hadn't really slept in about three days. I remember being totally exhausted when the show was finished and thinking that I was grateful I didn't have to go back and do another one. The experts don't go back even if they win -- the team gets a new expert each time. Of course, if they asked me....


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