The contraption games

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Festival: Homemade, human-powered gadgets in the spirit of the Visionary Art Museum will race around the waterfront Saturday morning as part of the Baltimore Waterfront Festival.

April 29, 1999|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Sun Staff

Is this a perfect event for Baltimore or what? Quirky. A little weird. Creative and fun. And it's coming to the Inner Harbor. It's called a kinetic sculpture race. And this isn't just any old kinetic sculpture race. Welcome to the first "East Coast National Championship Human-Powered All-Terrain Kinetic Sculpture Race."

We will forgive you for now scratching your head and perhaps muttering "say what?" You are not alone. Unless, of course, you are a transplant from the West Coast, where people seem to invent these sorts of things.

OK. Here's a little primer.

A kinetic sculpture race is a competition riding in, well, whatever you want to. As long as the vehicle you race in gets from here to there under your own strength -- sans motor. Oh, and it's not really a race.

Or, according to the official race rules: "A kinetic sculpture is an imaginative, and often wacky, human-powered work of art mainly constructed out of used bicycles, gears and parts created by a lunatic genius in his/her garage and must be designed to travel on land, through mud and over water.

"Design and construction ingenuity are considered of greater importance. The name of this game is mediocrity, because the overall winner is the one who finished in the middle: speed, nasty competitiveness and a puny sense of humor will only make you lose points."

This race that's not really a race is sponsored by the American Visionary Art Museum and the city's Office of Promotions and is scheduled for Saturday. "I think you pilots will give a whole new meaning to May Day on May 1st," AVAM's director and founder, Rebecca Hoffberger, told some racers at a recent news conference.

The race is part of the Baltimore Waterfront Festival, held through Sunday. The festival will feature a variety of activities, including yacht racing, cooking demonstrations, exhibits, music and games.

The kinetic sculpture race may be new to Baltimore, but it has been around for 30 years, says the man who started it all.

"The first race was actually a mistake," says Hobart Brown, who lives in Ferndale, Calif.

"I was going to fix up my son's old tricycle because it sat out in front of my art gallery. It looked pretty tacky, and I said, 'I better dress this up.' Well, I got carried away like I do with just about everything."

Brown, who will be in Baltimore for the race, ended up with a 7-foot-tall something or other. "There was a place for lunch and a place for potted plants," he says.

One thing led to another, and the media came by to snap pictures of it, one with a politician sitting on top. The picture went national. "Then another friend said, 'I will build something too and race you.' "

Three other folks came up with their own vehicles, and the race was on. That is, if the things could actually move.

"I don't know how they heard about it, but thousands of people came to see it. I realize that it was a hunger for people to see someone fail," says Brown, who probably never fails at having a sense of humor.

Well, that year was 1969, and kinetic sculpture races have been going strong -- or going slowly, at least -- ever since. There have even been races in Australia and Poland. "It is so important that we have fun in this life," says Hobart.

There are some rules so things don't get totally out of hand -- such as each sculpture must be no more than 8 feet wide, 13 feet high and 35 feet long while on the road or highway.

About 10 teams are expected in the Baltimore race, says Teddy Brack, a spokeswoman for AVAM. One of those teams includes Jeff Bartolomeo, who lives in Rodgers Forge and is a network engineer for the federal government.

"It's a four-wheeled, front-wheel-drive, rear-wheel steerable -- meaning you steer from the rear -- two-seater, and it uses six 30-gallon plastic drums configured into pontoons, with three drums on each side. It has fins on the back, like an old Batmobile," says Bartolomeo.

As on other teams, he has a co-pilot. And in accordance with the rules, there is also a pit crew.

Bobby Hansson is another Maryland pilot.

"It's ugly," he says of his contraption. "It's got three wheels, two in the front, and all three wheels are different. The whole vehicle is made from scraps. It's named Gemini II. I built it, and my brother is coming for the glory part. He lives in Woodstock, N. Y."

There are four people on the team, including his twin brother, and there's a pit crew headed by his wife.

"God only knows how many hours I put into it," says Hansson, an artist who lives in Rising Sun. "If I only knew how many hours, I would probably jump in the water."

This team will not be going after any speed awards.

"We think of it as a parade. We are not in for the glory. We are in it for the fun," he says.

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