First, they were Baywatch lifeguards. Then they were Willy Wonka and the Oompa Loompas.
And today, a pickup and 22-foot U-Haul truck will transport a giant brain-shaped contraption, glider and launcher to Miami. That's where they will unleash the Flying Dead Zombie Attack at the first National Red Bull Flugtag. The two-time winners of the Tampa Bay Flugtag event will go up against 27 other teams on Saturday.
The goal of Flugtag, or "flight day" in German, competitions is to create a "human-powered flying machine" that travels the farthest, is most creative and demonstrates the most showmanship.
By contest rules, the contraptions can't exceed a wingspan of 28 feet or weight of 400 pounds, including the pilot. They also can't have any external motors or engines.
Aside from that, the teams are bound only by the limits of their creativity.
The men consider creativity their strong suit, and they've set their sights high — to break the world record for farthest flight.
In 2008, when Keith Humphrey, a 43-year-old St. Petersburg resident and captain of the group, first heard Flugtag was coming to Tampa, he emailed about a hundred of his friends to see who would be interested in participating with him.
The first four replies he received were from people he had grown up with — his brother, Kevin Humphrey, and grade-school friends Kevin Riley, Chris Elmore and David West.
They had all been lifeguards at Adventure Island water park when they were younger, and when Baywatch was a popular TV show, so they decided to bring the theme back to life for their first Flugtag effort.
After their craft won, traveling 109 feet (the world record is 227 feet by a German team), the team decided to participate again in 2011, this time based on an idea Riley, the 41-year-old owner of Riley Animations and creative mind of the group, thought would be the most colorful and theatrical — Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Humphrey stood on drywall stilts, towering over his team of 6-foot-3 Oompa Loompas.
When they heard about the National Flugtag competition a few months ago, they decided to go for a "threepeat."
"It's kind of contagious after you win one," Humphrey said. "You wonder if you can do it again."
Riley said the group takes the competition very seriously.
"I'm sure we just looked like a bunch of lifeguard guys with no shirts on, but what nobody knew was that we were actually using 3-D animation software doing actual physical dynamics tests," Riley said. "A good collection of folks were just college guys who had showed up like three days ago and threw together some PVC (piping) and duct tape and we had actually spent three months testing on computers.
Because Halloween is coming up, the group settled on a zombie theme, specifically The Walking Dead. Humphrey will dress as the AMC television show's sheriff Rick Grimes, his costume developed with the assistance of Comic Con characters. His teammates will dress as zombies with what Riley called "super-theatric, Hollywood-style makeup," done by M6FX, the makeup artists for Busch Gardens' annual Howl-O-Scream event.
The zombies will chase Humphrey to the end of the 30-foot ramp from which their brain-shaped glider, built from aluminum strips, pool noodles and Visqueen plastic sheeting, will launch. The zombies will "eviscerate" Humphrey, pulling out fake guts, then jump upright and perform Michael Jackson's Thriller dance before the glider is launched over Bayfront Park. Then they'll watch as their captain soars through the air and eventually plunges into the water.
Previously, the group used a slingshotlike maneuver that allowed the craft to catch extra speed. But since then, Red Bull has implemented more safety measures, which Riley said make it more difficult to break the current world record.
"Four people, no matter how strong and powerful four men or women can be to run to the edge of the ramp, you can't go faster than Usain Bolt, who's the fastest man in the world," Riley said. "This one, we've come up with a little bit of a different design. We think it's going to break the world record."
The group can't really practice, Riley said, because if they wreck their contraption it takes about six weeks to rebuild.
"It's kind of a one-shot deal," Riley said.
Though they hope to break the record, Riley said working with a group of friends is the ultimate payoff.
"Flugtag is a perfect amalgamation of creativity, experimentation and friendship," he said. "This is an opportunity that has nothing to do with clients or billing or money, but everything to do with just being as creative as you can just for creativity's sake."
Divya Kumar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.