- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 15, 2001

The premise is simple: Go into a junkyard with two of your closest friends, grab a bunch of stuff and make something. The task gets more difficult when the amount of stuff is limited and the something you are supposed to make becomes very specific, maybe a cannon, a race car, a submarine or even a mobile bridge.
Throw in a 10-hour time limit and another team trying to build that same "something" better, faster and stronger, and you have quite a contest, or more specifically, the Learning Channel's "Junkyard Wars." The show's 9 p.m. Wednesday premiere has been rescheduled to Sept. 26 because of the terrorist attacks on the United States.
The crisply uniformed teams might look like contestants on any other show at dawn, but by day's end, the sweaty, bedraggled participants often look as though they have crawled off the set of "The Road Warrior."
The show is "a scheme hatched by me and another woman working at [London-based production company] RDF," says the show's co-host and producer, Cathy Rogers.
Miss Rogers — who admits to a fetish for Rube Goldberg contraptions, the pie machine from "Chicken Run" and other unlikely devices — says the idea came to her while watching the movie "Apollo 13."
National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists in Houston had to figure out a way to keep the astronauts from asphyxiating in outer space. The scientists loaded all of the tools and supplies available in the spacecraft into a box and began to brainstorm.
"It's the nerds working behind the scenes, not the astronauts, who are the heroes," Miss Rogers explains.
That same can-do spirit fires the teams on "Junkyard Wars," now in its fourth year of production. The American version entered its second season earlier this month. Both versions air regularly on the Learning Channel.
In neither the British nor the American version would the gizmos constructed win any beauty contest — but there is something truly inspiring about a recoilless rifle built from a water pipe or a mobile bridge built from a panel van and an old Army truck.
The men and women competing on the show are always mechanically proficient but are helped in their tasks by a resident expert on the subject of the week. For example, the teams competing to build cannons each got ballistics experts — and one of the teams building a mobile bridge got engineer Bill Harris of Silver Spring.
Mr. Harris was born 32 years ago at a Washington hospital, but his tinkering life began at the tender age of 9. The clock he dismantled with hopes of repairing it never ticked again, but his thirst for things mechanical has yet to be slaked. By the time he graduated from high school, he had dismantled and rebuilt two cars, and in college academics took a back seat to his volunteer work helping to design and build a solar car.
He works for the Advanced Technology Group of Radian Inc.
Mr. Harris had never before designed a bridge — a fact he did not share with the show's recruiters until after the contest was over — but his design worked.
The show, which airs at 9 p.m. this Wednesday, is a real nail-biter.
Between his team, a trio of low-rider mechanics called the Miami Gearheads, and the Alberta-based Canadian Junkeze, there are scrapped plans, a minor revolution, a trip to the hospital and tension thick enough to slice.
"They scare me. I don't want to go back there," says co-host Tyler Harcott after retreating from the Gearhead side of the junkyard. Mr. Harcott does a fine job co-hosting with Miss Rogers, but those familiar with the British version of the show will miss its co-host, the glib, snaggletoothed Robert Llewellyn.
The subtle combination of solid science peppered with wit has helped keep the show's audience broad. Of the typically younger audience, about 40 percent of the viewers are female.
Still, there is a decided difference in tone between the American and British versions.
"The American teams are more rabidly competitive," Miss Rogers says, while the British teams salt their talk with tension-defusing dry witticisms.
Keeping the show balanced has assured commercial and critical success — it was nominated for an Emmy — and brought another sign of acceptance: Schools throughout the country are using it to inspire students. Mr. Harris has been invited to three local schools to talk about the show.
Says Miss Rogers: "It's really nice to be doing something that is both literally constructive as well as philosophically constructive."


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