South Korea may have nabbed the next Olympics, but did you know that Baltimore is hosting a much more important sports championship this very weekend? It’s true — assuming you only count sports that require contestants to carry around sock puppets.
On Saturday, D.C.’s quirky neighbor to the north will host the East Coast Kinetic Sculpture Race Championship, a competition where teams of artist-athletes pedal homemade, human-powered contraptions through the streets of Baltimore, as well as down a ramp and into the harbor for a dip.
The American Visionary Art Museum launched the race — really more like a parade, given the stately pace of the competitors along the 14-mile course — in 1999. Since then, the annual event has become one of the city’s more shambolic contests. For instance, if your vehicle falls apart, you are still eligible for several prizes, including the Golden Dinosaur, which is given to the first sculpture to break down.
“Kinetic cops” are on hand to enforce the rules and give out time penalties, “but you can bribe your way out of it if the infraction is minor enough,” says Theresa Segreti, director of design at the museum. What do those bribes involve? “Usually snacks,” she says.
The time penalties can help you out, though, because the top prize goes not to the team that crosses the finish line first, but to the one that finishes in the exact middle of the pack.
“Everyone wants to win the Grand East Coast National Mediocre Champion award, but it’s impossible to get on purpose,” says Jill Feasley, whose Takoma Park-based team has won it twice. “I love it. It subverts the typical competitive ideas about a race. It’s really all about creativity and having fun.”
3 Contraptions to look out for
The theme of this year’s race is “food,” though the 30 or so teams (most of which are from the D.C. and Baltimore area) can interpret that as loosely as they’d like. Here are a few of the contenders.
Petal to the Metal
This giant flower basket, powered by six people, rests on two tandem bikes welded together with two normal bikes. The flowers are made of nylon stocking stretched over wire and affixed to pool noodles, and the basket is made of wood paneling and PVC pipes, says team leader Jill Feasley, 51, a nonprofit manager who lives in Takoma Park, Md.
Bribes on board: Balloon flowers
Sock puppet: “We’ll be carrying a little basket of beloved old toys,” she says.
This 150-pound aquatic-themed contraption consists of two bikes lashed together and a coral reef diorama teeming with plastic-bottle fish. It’s powered by two peddlers and will stay afloat — hopefully — with the assistance of large, empty plastic bottles.
Bribes on board: “We’ll be handing out soggy tuna fish sandwiches,” says team leader Chris Leonberg, 33, a D.C.-based architect.
Sock puppet: “I think it’s going to be an octopus,” he says.
Australian Cold Cut Sub
This 4,000-pound sandwich rests on a chassis made of eight bicycles geared together by way of a truck transmission. The meat, cheese and tomatoes are made of corrugated plastic. It will carry eight cyclists, a driver and any number of team members’ children — “free-riders” who can garner teams extra points. “We do not go very fast,” says team leader David Hess, 52, a Baltimore-based metal sculptor.
Bribes on board: Sandwich-shop coupons
Sock puppet: A big pickle
Where to see the action
- American Visionary Art Museum (800 Key Highway, Baltimore) 8-10 a.m. See the sculptures in their pristine states, watch a marching band and chorus, and listen for the giant gong — the official start of the race.
- Canton Waterfront Park (3001 Boston St., Baltimore) 11:15 a.m.-1:15 p.m. Hold your breath as racers try to avoid winning the Golden Flipper Award, for “most interesting” entry into the water.
- Patterson Park (East Lombard Street and South Patterson Park Avenue, Baltimore) 1:15-3:30 p.m. At this point in the race, the kinetic sculptures will slog through mud and sand.