Father and son build vehicles for Hampdenfest's Toilet Races

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As many as 4,000 spectators are expected for the sixth annual Toilet Races, based on past crowd estimates.

Matthew Baker, 10, is too young to compete in the upcoming Toilet Races during Hampdenfest on Sept. 19. According to the rules, which his father wrote, contestants must be 18 or older.

When asked if he agrees with that rule, Matthew said, "Not really, but I get it."

There's no law against the Hampden boy building the race cars, however. That's what Matthew was doing Sept. 10 under the watchful eye of his father, artist Steve Baker, founder and organizer of the sixth annual Toilet Races and owner of Wholly Terra, an art studio on Chestnut Avenue.

Working out of a nearby garage, Matthew donned a protective helmet and gloves and began to weld parts together for an ambitious racing vehicle with twin toilet tanks, which his father jokingly referred to as a V–twin engine. It's one of several soapbox derby-style cars that the Bakers have been building.

"For the past few weeks, this has been our project," Steve Baker said.

The Toilet Races, a series of heats leading up to the championship race, start at Chestnut and West 36th Street, known as The Avenue. It's all downhill from there, as contestants get a starting push from their supporters and roll down Chestnut Avenue as fast as they can for several blocks to the finish line.

Several thousand spectators are expected to line both sides of Chestnut for the races, from 3-5 p.m., based on crowd estimates in years past.

Hampdenfest and its main event, the Toilet Races, are looking to rebound from last year, when the small neighborhood festival nearly was canceled because it conflicted with Baltimore's nationally publicized Sailabration. The date of Hampdenfest had to be changed at the proverbial last minute, because city officials said they lacked the manpower and resources to provide security and other support services for Hampdenfest and Sailabration.

As a result of the date change, some Hampdenfest vendors and musical acts had to cancel because they were booked elsewhere. The festival did get a late boost, however, when up-and-coming Baltimore band, Future Islands, stepped in to perform on the main stage.

The date change also disrupted Baker's plans as organizer of the Toilet Races, and he had to turn those duties over because he had a scheduling conflict of his own.

This year, Baker is back in business as organizer and race car builder, but unlike his son he has no desire to personally ride one of their contraptions in the Toilet Races.

"Some other fool can ride it down the street," he said, recalling that there have been two crashes in the contest over the years — one of them involving him as the driver in the 2012 Toilet Races. He said he was "cruising pretty fast," gaining ground on the racer ahead of him, when he had to slam on his brakes, causing the vehicle and its built-in toilet tank to flip over on top of him.

The tank didn't just break — "it exploded," he said. "It totally blew apart. I was bruised for a week. I still have nightmares."

Bawdy contestants

But Baker has plenty else to keep him busy. He has already delivered one of his son's homemade racers to a troupe of burlesque queens. Several members of the troupe, Bawdy Shop Burlesque, decorated the racer with glitter in leader Ruby Rockafella's backyard in Hamilton last weekend, and they plan to enter it as a team in the Toilet Races.

"It's a single-seater. It looks like a sporty tricycle with a toilet on it," said Rockafella, who would give only her stage name.

In conjunction with Hampdenfest, Bawdy Shop Burlesque, which debuted last year with a show at the Ottobar in Remington, plans to stage its own post-race festival of burlesque and variety arts, featuring everything from belly dancing to carnival-style "side show" acts, including performers lying on a bed of nails.

The burlesque festival, called "The Avenue Meets the Strip," will run from 8-11 p.m., with an adults-only burlesque show in Gallery 788, located at 3602 Hickory Ave., followed by a glitter parade on West 36th Street and free kazoos for the crowd.

"We love and celebrate everything about Baltimore," said Rockafella, whose troupe was invited to enter last year's Toilet Races, but was booked for a Bawdy Shop Burlesque show. "Hampden happens to be a place we go a lot. We all get our hair done in Hampden."

Rockafella said Bawdy Shop Burlesque is well-suited for Hampdenfest and the Toilet Races.

"We are in love with toilet humor," she said. "We are completely ridiculous people. It's a perfect fit. What is more bawdy that riding down the street on a toilet?"

Many of the contestants will be entering their own homemade racers, including Chris Doiron, of Hampden, new owner of Luigi's restaurant on The Avenue. He has competed in the Toilet Races every year, with a variety of creative entries, including an outhouse with a shingled roof, a claw foot bathtub with a toilet sidecar, and the Leaky Tiki, a Tiki bar urinal raised to the right height, "if you needed to go," he said.

"None of his racers go farther than the first round," Baker said. "It's all style."

Doiron won't deny that.

"I build things that are impossibly slow," he said.

Doiron wouldn't describe this year's entry.

"It's top secret," he said, "because I haven't made it yet."

But he dropped two hints.

"I guarantee it'll be slow as molasses," he said. "It'll definitely have a cooler attached to it."

Pride and glory

"He's just doing it for fun," said Matthew Baker, a fifth grader at the Jemicy School, who has become a veteran observer of the Toilet Races. "Some people really amp it up and get soapbox derby wheels. They're aiming to win. It's really fun to see what different people make."

As for Matthew, "I make them for fun and speed."

Although he enjoys welding and "the mechanics" of building racers, Matthew isn't sure what he wants to be when he grows up. He's also really into rock climbing and said, "I'd like to be a climbing coach."

But he admires well-built toilet racers and enjoys being part of the action.

"I get a lot of compliments," he said. "When I watch (the races), I sometimes see my friends in the crowd. They think it's actually pretty cool."

His father said building toilet races isn't as oddball as some might think for a family-affair project.

"It lends itself to a very good thought process" for children, Baker said. "Matthew is one of the few kids in his class who knows how to build things. You appreciate good craft because you've done it."

And in that regard, Matthew is adhering to another of his father's rules for the races.

"Have fun," Baker said. "and don't be a jerk."

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