Hampdenfest toilet races teem with excitement

Baltimore Messenger
Hampdenfest toilet races teem with excitement

The greatest toilet racers in the world — mull over that phrase for a second or two — will gather Saturday for the right to earn a Golden Seat award for being the quickest commode on wheels.

Some 30 teams, ranging in size from two to seven people, are slated to compete for the fastest john to cover 400 feet of a downward slope of Chestnut Avenue south of West 36th Street in a race to the, ahem, end.

A careening commode and the frame on which it sits may be no larger than 12 feet long, 5 feet wide and 13 feet high. And, it should be able to steer and is required to have a brake that will not damage the street.

If past years are indicative of interest, an estimated 4,000 onlookers will watch teams vie for the first-place prize at the main event of Hampdenfest, a daylong celebration organized by the Hampden Village Merchants Association that strives for more of a local flavor than its more renowned cousin, Honfest.

According to the website for the event, Hampdenfest has "evolved into a neighborhood arts festival that draws visitors, as well as local residents, to enjoy the community of merchants on and around West 36th Street."

"Honfest is for the county," offered Mark Huson, 32, a computer consultant from Hampden who has finished third for the past three races. "Hampdenfest is for the city."

And what, precisely, are the toilet races for?

According to the man who came up with the idea to stage such a race, Steve Baker, it is a lot of fun for a good cause — Skatepark of Baltimore — that will reap between $500 and $800 from the event, depending upon the number of teams with a variety of double-entendre names willing to spring for a $40 entry fee.

Preliminary heats begin at 2 p.m. and the real races begin an hour later, using a single-elimination format with winners advancing until a champion is crowned.

It all started seven years ago, Baker said, when local skateboarders asked him if he thought that raising money with a bake sale to donate to what is now Skatepark of Baltimore was a good idea.

"I told them that they were going to have to come up with something bigger than that," said Baker, 43, an artist who owns Wholly Terra, a studio featuring a wide array of stained glass. "We started thinking about doing something crazy, and something other people would want to watch."

Baker counts himself among the temporarily deranged, because as much as anybody he enjoys the process of building and then racing the soapbox derby-styled contraptions that use only a 20-foot push by team members and gravity to reach the finish line.

"We share in the glory and we have a great time," Baker said. "It was the worst idea ever, but it's funny how so many people want to do something this stupid."

He learned firsthand about the folly of taking the race lightly when he went head-over-heels during the race a couple of years ago and landed on his head, cracking his helmet and earning some road rash as a result of the tumble.

"I'm glad I had a helmet on," Baker said, noting that the headgear is required. "It's the most dangerous 400 feet."

Racer Huson laughed and cracked, "Especially for the spectators," alluding to serious steering issues that plague some of the competitors.

Most noteworthy among those, Baker said, was a group of bioengineering students from Johns Hopkins University.

"They had what looked like something that was going to be fast," he said. "They had soapbox derby-style wheels, but they couldn't figure out how to steer them."

Proving that even Baltimore icons are not spared, Baker recalled that the Natty Boh mascot, Mr. Boh, was wiped out by one of the racers a few years ago.

Despite the levity surrounding the event, Jim Burger, 55, was serious enough about the race to give it his best shot.

The Remington resident joined his neighborhood team, the Stool Pigeons, after it came in fourth in 2013.

When it was time to build a vehicle for the 2014 race, Burger was all in.

The former Baltimore Sun photographer urged the team to rebuild and design the vehicle's frame from the ground up.

"I said, 'You can't build it the same way you did last year, because you came in fourth,'" Burger said. "I wanted to win so bad. I would have been inconsolable if we hadn't won."

The fruits of victory — the Stool Pigeons prevailed by a whopping 10 feet in the finale — are evident in Burger's home studio, where the Golden Seat is prominently displayed.

"Visitors to my home rarely escape without my dragging them upstairs to look at it," he said.

When someone asked Burger to give it back, his answer was clear.

"No way," he said, adding that the winners from the previous year would not shake his hand after the victory.

This year a new prize, a Kohler toilet, will go the last-place team.

"When you come in last, you should take the toilet, put it in your house and don't come out again — ever," Baker said with a laugh.

Stool Pigeon member Brian Balch joked that just by joining the proceedings, one's status with the opposite sex should improve.

"It's the danger factor," said Balch, 44, a health care information technology director. "I guess chicks dig guys on toilets."

Chris Doiron, 46, the owner of Luigi's Italian Deli on the Avenue, said that he has minimal expectations for winning every year, mainly because he's more into spectacle than speed.

At least that was the case for his team's Leaky Tiki, a Tiki bar urinal-oriented vehicle that was a crowd favorite but only, excuse the expression, trickled down the street during the race.

"We're in the concept phase until two days before the race," Doiron said. "Then the day before we get drunk and build something. We go to Steve's garage, bring some beers and crank it out. I've got an idea for doing something on the 'Game of Thrones.' It'll be interesting if we can pull it off. But if we can't, we'll just wing it."

HAMPDENFEST 2016

HampdenFest features three music stages, a kids' activities area and arts-and-crafts vendors.

Musical performance schedule:

THE ICON STAGE (36th St. in front of Bank of America)

11 a.m. School Of Rock

Noon Expert of Nothing

1 p.m. Holy Fingers

2 p.m. Jumpcuts

3 p.m.The Creepers

4 p.m. Raindeer

5 p.m. TT The Artist

6 p.m. Wildhoney

ATOMIC BOOKS STAGE (36th St. and Falls Road)

11:15 a.m. Go Dog Go

Noon Santa Librada

1 p.m. Guided By Wire

2 p.m. Pure Junk

3 p.m. Post Pink

4 p.m. PLRLS

5 p.m. Kurt Deemer Band

6 p.m. Gateway To Hell

CHESTNUT STAGE (36th and Chestnut Streets)

11 a.m. The Get Smart (BAL, ex-Idle Gossip)

Noon Colora

1 p.m. DANGEROUSLY DELICIOUS pie-eating contest

1:30 p.m. The Othermen

2:30 p.m. Party Lights

3:30 p.m. The Stents

4:30 p.m. Louie Louie

5:30 p.m. The Above

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