The Kinetic Sculpture Race was this past weekend, and like so many of Charm City’s other festivals and traditions, it was a reminder as to why I think Baltimore is so perfect.
Before I launch into my love letter to this bizarre event, let me explain it…
It’s an annual race sponsored by the American Visionary Arts Museum every summer. It requires participants to create… how do I explain this… huge, man-powered, amphibious machines that must power around the city on pavement, sand, mud, and water. But above the fact that they’re feats of engineering, they’re also works of art. The pilots of these machines are talented artist-engineer extraordinaires.
Perhaps my favorite part of the race is that you don’t really win in a traditional sense. Sure, snaps to whomever comes in first (though the race doesn’t award based purely on speed… they also consider artistry and engineering, and this coveted prize is called the Grand East Coast National Mediocre Champion), but there is a whole myriad of bizarre awards for every aspect of the race. Golden Dinosaur (most memorable breakdown). Sock Creature of the Universe (each sculpture is required to carry a stuffed companion). Golden Flipper (for the most interesting entry into the water). Next to Last. Worst Honorable Mention (for the engineers who just couldn’t quite engineer, but still tried their darndest).
I prefer to watch at Patterson Park, where the pilots tackle the sand and mud challenges. I like the sand challenge especially; you get to see the sculptures up close at top speed. Also, that’s where the snowball vendor usually hangs out. Another favorite spectator spot is Canton Waterfront, where they attempt the splashdown into the water.
The Kinetic Sculpture Race is weird. It isn’t everyone’s scene. Spectators are encouraged to wear bizarre costumes—to match the pilot and pit crews—and while these pilots make amazing, amazing sculptures and have physical prowess, it isn’t NASCAR-level competition. What the Kinetic Sculpture Race boils down to is that it’s all in good fun. So if you have a bad attitude, or can’t laugh at weird stuff, or don’t like to see underdogs succeed, this race probably isn’t for you.
Baltimore probably isn’t for you.
Like I said, the Kinetic Sculpture Race is basically everything I like about Baltimore represented in one little event. It’s eccentricity, it’s humor, it’s creativity, it’s lightheartedness. It doesn’t take itself seriously. It doesn’t try to be anything it’s not.
When my favorite local news anchor, Rob Roblin, signed off for the last time, he said something along the lines of that in Baltimore, you don’t have to be a lot of things. You don’t have to be smart, or good-looking, but you have to able to laugh at yourself, and you have to be real.
And that’s why I love the Kinetic Sculpture Race so much, and why I’ve called Baltimore my home for almost 20 years now (aside from the fact that my parents decided I would live here). It’s whimsical and weird and it forces you to laugh a little. It’s my favorite Baltimore tradition because it’s so quintessentially Baltimore.
You can view this year’s winners here