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Couple aims to conquer 14th annual sculpture race in Amish buggy

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The smell of spray paint filled the air on April 26 and the black buggy looked as if it would be more at home in Pennsylvania Dutch country than at the end of an Arbutus driveway.

Wearing work clothes and a bandanna around his head, 39-year-old Phillip Smith was busy mounting the carriage body onto a frame.

His girlfriend, Catonsville resident Melissa Koerner, 33, had just arrived from her job as a program coordinator at a school for acupuncture dressed in business casual attire to check on their sculpture vehicle's progress.

With only 10 days before the 14th annual Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race, the couple had at least 25 hours of work left on their entry, a hybrid of an Amish buggy and two bicycles.

Compared with many in the race, the buggy is among the more conservative-looking entries.

It should also be one of the most mobile. The pair designed the vehicle they named Rumspringa to conquer the varied types of obstacles of the May 5 race in Baltimore City sponsored by the American Visionary Art Museum.

Rumspringa will traverse the steep slopes of Federal Hill, cobblestones of Fells Point, water off the shore of Canton and pits of sand and mud in Patterson Park during the 15-mile race.

Rumspringa is the Amish rite of passage during which adolescents explore the world outside their cloistered community.

Participating as rookies last year, Smith and Koerner did not earn the coveted Ace designation for pilots who conquer each obstacle because one of their CVC pontoons struck a clump of mud and they got stuck.

"We missed it by just a hair," said Smith, regret tingeing his tone. "It's definitely been a learning experience between the two of us."

Smith had for several years gone to the race to assist competitors who were having mechanical difficulties.

After he met Koerner, he told her about the race with the idea that they would go down and watch.

"We had started talking about going to see it together," Koerner said. "As things progressed, I decided I don't want to watch it. I wanted to be in it."

They didn't start building their buggy until about four months before the event.

"Building the vehicle was much harder than I thought it would be," Smith said. "The challenges of making something go on water and on land well are counter to each other."

Though they didn't conquer the five obstacles, they earned the Engineering Award, which sat in the dining room of Smith's parents, Joe and Elaine Smith, for several months after the race.

The award resembles many of the eclectic, colorful entries in the race. It consists of a gold hand with fuzzy red finger tips, pinwheel flowers, stuffed alligator, plastic cockroaches, shopping cart wheel and orange bungee cord.

According to the race website, judges give the Engineering Award in "consideration of ingenious conquering of course obstacles through Sculpture design as well as any ingenious facet of the design that functions in a truly unique or Glorious Manner."

Not willing to chalk up last year's failure to conquer the muddy obstacle to bad luck, Koerner, Smith and his father, the team's "master technician," revamped the street-legal buggy.

This year, the vehicle will have two-wheel drive as opposed to the one-wheel drive it had last year.

Now when they face the mud obstacle, they will be able to shift the two 8-foot pontoons up to create more clearance between them and the ground.

"Testing. Testing is the most important part," said Koerner, a 10-year Catonsville resident.

Last year, it took the Smiths and Koerner about 40 minutes to assemble and disassemble the buggy.

Because constructing the buggy required so much labor, Phillip Smith and Koerner entered as many events as they could to put it on display. They participated in the Catonsville Fourth of July Parade, where they won the Judge's Choice award, Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby in Philadelphia and the Mayor's Annual Christmas Parade.

"The beating this takes just in the Baltimore Race, everything loosens and comes apart. It's not easy," Koerner said. "We thought the more use we could get out of the sculpture, the better."

Koerner recalled how a crew of friends followed the buggy picking up washers and other parts that fell off at last year's race.

She said the crew will be back again this year wearing Amish costumes.

"I wouldn't miss that," said the elder Smith, a member of the crew, though it was unclear if he'd dress up in Amish garb. "I'm thinking about riding my bike along with it."

Despite all the work, compromises had to be made. The key is knowing which concessions to make and being thorough in the assembly process.

"If you forget one lug nut, a bolt could slip off and you could flip over," said the younger Smith, a 1991 graduate of Lansdowne High School, about the water portion of the race.

Not only does the race test engineering skills, but also physical conditioning. The race lasts about eight hours.

Though the younger Smith and Koerner had the fastest sculpture last year, the two formed one of the smallest driving teams, going against some vehicles piloted by teams as large as eight or nine people.

Their two bicycles that power the sculpture, which moves an estimated 2-3 mph, each have 12 gears. Each driver can pick the gear that they need and the drivers take turns steering.

Though it has a bottle opener on the side and its half a dozen stickers include one of National Bohemian Beer's Mr. Boh that Philip Smith altered to look Amish, the buggy shouldn't be viewed as irreverent.

The inspiration for the vehicle came from the positive encounters Smith had with the Amish community, he said.

Smith said his favorite part of the structure is a wagon brake added to the vehicle two days before last year's race.

The double mechanical disk brake system isn't strong enough to stop a vehicle that weighs 750 pounds when the two pilots are in it, so they added a wagon brake at his father's suggestion.

Koerner's favorite part of the sculpture is the multiple horns installed on the structure. She said they will add two more horns to the buggy because they were a hit with the crowd.

"You see this beautiful sculpture and then you honk the horn and it gives everyone a laugh and a smile," Koerner said. "It just makes it a little bit special."

Should it complete all the obstacles, the team will retire the vehicle but not themselves from the event.

"If we get our Ace, we already have many plans," Koerner said.

The couple declined to disclose potential future designs, but said the key to a good design is first finding a good name.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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