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The perfect place to begin

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A dancing peanut shaped like a mushroom head wobbles past me. On the front of it, a  jack-o-lantern face squashes and contorts. Stabbing out where the ears should be, a pair of small black arms wave the air as it bobs like a jelly fish through the crowd. Poking out the bottom, a child’s legs scrabble like crab feet, propelling it through a cavernous circus tent enveloping the mass of people around me as we baste in the hot, curdled air.

The child and a string of sweating humans parade by. Among them are masked characters from a Hansel and Gretel world: men with giant hooked noses, witches, comic elderly faces with crossed bulging eyes, and the princess of the Bavarian Blast bearing an ornamental staff and marching in time. Driving this German conga-line are the oompa – oompa blasts of Die Zweiviertel Musikanten, a horn and clarinet band from Austria who came to this small German town 90 miles southwest of Minneapolis, Minnesota to perform for their Bavarian Blast. A musician from Colorado, I spend most of the year performing myself, but  I arrived here last week to work insurance claims for a storm that pounded the area with hail and wind.

And of all the places in America, this is where my journey to the Automotive Xprize begins: here at New Ulm Minnesota’s Bavarian Blast, where three massive tents radiate music nearly twelve hours a day for three days straight, and where the bones of the people are forged from the blood of the hardy German pioneers who settled here.

I sit, barely moving in the thinnest shirt and shorts I have. My Colorado skin steams, wet and hot in the broiling vapor. Before me, sheathed in heavy costume, the wooden masked characters of the “The Narren” clap and leap and whirl and lead a long human “snake dance”. These New Ulm Germans are tough, passionate and joyful people.

In 1860, one of them started Schell Beer, the second oldest family run brewery in America and the main sponsor of this Bavarian Blast. On a hill west of town, there’s a 30 ft copper statue on a 100 ft high monument where New Ulm celebrates another German who lived long before Schell.

Against all odds in 9 A.D., Hermann (Arminius), a Cheruscan chieftain, delivered the Roman legions’ first major defeat in the forests of central Europe. Hermann’s victory gave Caesar Augustus pause and he chose not to conquer central Europe.

Under the cathedral tent, Die Zweivertel blasts their last note. In the same breath The Concord Singers begin, and a sea of people roar into song with them, drowning out the thunder in a storm raging to the west. Lighting sparks constant in the distance; the cathedral pillars of the tent sway ominously in the threatening wind; and the roar of New Ulm fortifies itself against the coming storm. Fearless.

Tonight the journey begins, an Xprize Road Trip from the heart of a German town to the heart of a German man named Oliver Kuttner, the leader of Edison2, an automotive team competing for one of the largest purses in motor sport history.

Oliver, his team, and three of his four combustion engine cars have survived an onslaught of electric vehicles in a gauntlet of efficiency called the Automotive Xprize, a ten million dollar tournament for production viable cars that get at least 100 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent). The German stands alone — the team leader of the only remaining four-person vehicle platform and the second of only two remaining combustion engine teams.

In a land where the nation’s deadliest battles between Indians and settlers occured, where New Ulm, nearly destroyed, barricaded itself against Dakota Indians and brutal winters, and where the statue of “Herman the German” heaves a giant sword into the sky in victory, I can’t imagine a better place to begin.


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