The giant platypus is ready to race

As he has for the past nine years, sculptor David Hess will take to the water tomorrow with his Personal, Long-range, All-terrain Yacht, Proven UnSafe — or, for short, the Platypus. Hess is devoutly hoping not to repeat last year's debacle in the Kinetic Sculpture Race, when his crew very nearly mutinied.

Not that anyone was forced to walk the bill … er, plank.

But under race rules, all the machines must be set in motion by human power alone. And when a team is trying to propel a 13-foot-tall, 26-foot long bird, weighing 3,800 pounds, on land, through the mud and in water — and all without the benefit of a motor — the galley slaves can get a mite tetchy.

"Eight of us ride bikes, and our bike chains go through the Platypus' drive shaft," Hess says.

"Pokey is quite heavy, and getting him up even the smallest hill takes a pretty big effort. You need thighs of steel. Last year, after about a half-mile, people got tired and wanted to turn around and go back instead of finishing the race. So my daughter and a few of her friends jumped on the bikes and took over for them."

Oh — and did we mention that Pokey, which will have an Australian theme this year, will be wearing a beanie with a 5-foot-tall stainless-steel propeller at the top? Or that the ninth crew member — the driver — will be grilling hot dogs given out to the judges as bribes?

"We have some new members on the crew this year," Hess says. "But I'm not at liberty to say what promises I had to make to get them to participate."

Baltimore's 12th annual East Coast Kinetic Sculpture Race Championship begins at 10 a.m. Saturday at the American Visionary Art Museum. During the eight-hour event, about 30 human-powered machines, each more outlandish than the next, will try to navigate a 15-mile course on land, through sand and mud, and the Chesapeake Bay.

At stake are more than a dozen awards, including the coveted Second-to-Last Award, and the even more coveted Mediocre Award, for the vehicle ending in the middle of the pack. As always, bribing the judges is encouraged.

"It's a really fun, long day," says Theresa Segreti, who is organizing the race for the American Visionary Art Museum.

"You're so tired, you're slap-happy by the end of the day. Everything that happens is funny, everything is touching, everything makes your cry, and everything makes you laugh."

Baltimore's race is an offshoot of an event held annually in Ferndale, Calif. In 1969, an artist named Hobart Brown transformed his tricycle into a five-wheel vehicle, and promptly was challenged to a race down the city's main street. The event attracted 10,000 spectators, and an annual tradition was born that spread to a handful of other cities, including Baltimore.

For the first time, vehicles in this year's race will no longer be allowed to wallow indefinitely in the mud.

"In the past, when vehicles got stuck, we let their crews take as long as they needed to get them out," Segreti says."But the field has gotten so much bigger. Now, if you're not out in 2 minutes, 10 seconds, either the pit crew or the crowd has to drag you out."

Such an occurrence will strike a death blow to those vehicles going for ace status, which must complete the course unaided. And to heighten the drama, volunteers have created oversize, two-minute timers.

"We'll have giant hourglasses that real sand will run through," Segreti says.

"Another group figured out a way of taking two of the water coolers you might see in an office and putting them end to end to create a little cyclone inside. We'll use that as a two-minute timer for when we enter the water."

And, for the final 10 seconds, Vegas-style performers will flip big numbers as the crowd counts along.

"In the past, the crowd has really gotten behind those ace pilots," Segreti says."This year, we're trying to turn it around and get the crowd behind the timers.You know how a mother can pick up a bus if her kid is beneath it? I feel like when the pressure is on, the vehicles will get out."

Hess will have some competition in the race, with a group headed by Aric Wanveer, a musician and artist who has worked out of Hess' studio.

Wanveer's entry is called "Mobile Media." His contraption, described as "a rolling art installation," will be entirely white, and the seven pilots who will be powering it will also be dressed head to toe in white suits, capes and hats.

Between songs, the musicians will hand out markers, crayons and miniature paint cans to the crowd, who will not just be allowed, but encouraged, to decorate the machine — and all of its crew members.

"We're hoping to get people who wouldn't normally be involved in something like this to pick up a pencil and draw," Wanveer says.

"One of the most fun things for us is driving through neighborhoods before people who have no idea this is happening. You get them out of their houses, and they listen to the music. Their eyes light up, and you can see them see things they've never seen before."

If you go
The Kinetic Sculpture Race starts at 10 a.m. at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway, and runs through downtown Baltimore to Patterson Park and back again. Free. For details, call 410-244-1900 or go to

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