Peculiar contest puts artsy crafts in motion

The high-energy Kinetic Sculpture Race creates a vision of quirky crafts pedaling through a 15-mile course in the city


If you happened to see a 15-foot-tall Indian elephant carrying Gandhi near the Inner Harbor yesterday, you weren't hallucinating.

It was part of the eighth annual American Visionary Art Museum's Kinetic Sculpture Race, which features pedal-powered sculptures and has become a Baltimore tradition.

The term "race" applies loosely, as the most-coveted prize is for the entrant that finishes in the middle of the pack. The course stretched 15 miles, from the museum, into the Baltimore harbor for a brief nautical leg, to Patterson Park for obstacle courses and back to the museum. The journey can last seven hours.

"It shows an incredible side to Baltimore," said Pete Hilsee, director of communications for the museum and a co-pilot of the Gandhi-topped elephant, named Bumpo. "One of the greatest things is coming across people who don't expect to see a 15-foot poodle racing across the street in the middle of the day."

Lisa Simeone of Charles Village shouted encouragement to participants while standing along Key Highway near the start of the race.

"Bravo!" she yelled to a group peddling a miniature version of Dorothy's house from The Wizard of Oz. "You are so clever."

Simeone, a National Public Radio host who entered the race in 2001, said she loves the mix of kookiness, creativity and endurance necessary to finish.

"I know how hard this is," she said. "Thank God for cycling at the gym."

The event usually attracts thousands along the course, according to Hilsee.

"We count the groups of people that are innocently getting off buses at the Inner Harbor," Hilsee said.

Colleen Noonan, who lives near the Key Highway portion, heard about the race from a neighbor and brought her two children, Lauren, 1, and Michael, 3.

"This is great," Noonan said. "I didn't know what we were going to do this morning."

Matt Turner, Noonan's neighbor, said he has turned the race into an annual ritual.

"It's always nice to bring the kids out," he said as he monitored his 3-year-old son, Adam. "They have a blast. It's always cool."

Some entries were as simple as single-seated bicycles with a colorful shell, while others were as complex as a gigantic brown platypus housing 11 people that wowed spectators.

"People get working on them as soon as the race ends," Hilsee said. "It could take months. When you see some of the welding and the engineering, you see a lot of work goes into them."

Several elements added to the quirkiness of the event.

Participants were penalized for not smiling. Each sculpture was required to have a sock puppet passenger. And competitors were encouraged to bribe race officials.

Hilsee prepared by making mango kebabs -- a bribe for the judges -- and studying the myriad rules he planned to break.

Ed Istwan, one of two judges dressed in black robes and white wigs, said the best bribe was a piece of chocolate cake from the crew of the perennially popular Fifi, a 14-foot-tall pink poodle.

The bribes didn't all work.

Peter Treadway, a "Kinetic cop," was offered a pair of pants from one participants.

"I gave him a ticket," said Treadway, a 16-year-old sophomore at the Park School in Brooklandville.

The race featured 15 awards including best pit crew, best costume, the golden flipper award (given to the sculpture with the most interesting water entry), the next-to-last award and the golden dinosaur award (which is given to the first sculpture to break down).

The most coveted award is the Grand East Coast National Mediocre Champion, given to the sculpture that finishes in the middle of the pack. The mathematical formula used to determine the winner incorporates speed, artistic merit and engineering,

This year's mediocre award went to Hunk-A-Hunk-A Burnin' Love, a teal Cadillac piloted by two Elvis impersonators.

But the day was not without kinks.

Matt Roesle, a first-time participant from Severn, spent most of the morning near the start where his entry, Moon Buggy, broke down.

"We're falling apart," Roesle said as he tinkered with a bicycle chain that was stuck. "Pretty much every component has let go in the last 50 feet."

At the water-entry point in Canton Waterfront Park, Stacey Mink, a pit crew member of Miso the Dragon, watched in dejection as her sculpture started to sink.

"We put in 12 hours just making sure it would float," Mink said.

But in the end, the multicolored dragon survived the water leg and moved on.

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