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How the Kinetic Sculpture Race came to Baltimore

Derek Hawkins, from left, Brian Garrett and Tom Witt hit the water in Canton as "The Chainsaw Wilburs" prepare for the home stretch after leading most of the way during the first Kinetic Sculpture Race, anobstacle-course run through the city. In 1999, the Visionary Art Museum's race was part of the Inner Harbor Festival.
Derek Hawkins, from left, Brian Garrett and Tom Witt hit the water in Canton as "The Chainsaw Wilburs" prepare for the home stretch after leading most of the way during the first Kinetic Sculpture Race, anobstacle-course run through the city. In 1999, the Visionary Art Museum's race was part of the Inner Harbor Festival. (Doug Kapustin / Baltimore Sun / May 1, 1999)

Baltimore takes great pride in the annual Kinetic Sculpture Race, but the event actually got its start in California, with an eccentric sculptor named Hobart Brown.

"He looked exactly like the Monopoly man," said Theresa Segreti, director of design for the American Visionary Art Museum. He always wore a top hat. "He had really twinkly blue eyes. He was just a character."

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Segreti first got to know Brown through "Good Morning America." In 1998, the show covered Brown's kooky race, which had whipped through the outskirts of Ferndale, Calif., since 1969.

Watching it, she thought it would be a perfect fit for Baltimore.

So she invited Brown to come to Charm City. Together, they drove around town to determine the best route for the race. Brown had never held a kinetic sculpture race in the middle of the city before. "He said 'This is going to be perfect.'"

American Visionary Arts Museum's first "human powered all-terrain kinetic sculpture race" was held around the Inner Harbor on May 1, 1999. Pictured is Bobby Hansson, from left, with wife Maggie Hansson and Mike Yozell in their flame painted car.
American Visionary Arts Museum's first "human powered all-terrain kinetic sculpture race" was held around the Inner Harbor on May 1, 1999. Pictured is Bobby Hansson, from left, with wife Maggie Hansson and Mike Yozell in their flame painted car. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun / April 22, 1999)

The route for the first Baltimore race, held in 1999, included a plunge into the Inner Harbor near the finish line.

"It was pretty crazy and impractical," Segreti said. Kinetic sculptures flipped over in the harbor after sliding off the too-high boat ramp. Once in the water, they began blocking the route of the water taxis, whose operators were less than amused.

Brown thought it was great.

"Hobart loved that idea that everybody had to come to a stop because of us," she said. "He loved the idea that we were making crazy problems for ourselves in the middle of the city."

Segreti, who needed to win over city leaders, was less keen to cause trouble. "I needed the police to be on our side," she said. (The race now sticks to the Canton waterfront.)

Jeff Bartolomeo, left, and J.R. Owens need help from their crew to get though the mud pit in Canton as their sculpture, "Bartmobile," attempts to catch "The Chainsaw Wilburs," who led most of the way during theobstacle course run through the city.
Jeff Bartolomeo, left, and J.R. Owens need help from their crew to get though the mud pit in Canton as their sculpture, "Bartmobile," attempts to catch "The Chainsaw Wilburs," who led most of the way during theobstacle course run through the city. (Doug Kapustin / Baltimore Sun / May 1, 1999)

Segreti still gets choked up when she remembers one particular team from the early years of the Kinetic Sculpture Race.

With the help of a local science teacher, a group of students from East Baltimore's Fairmount-Harford High School had built a sculpture from PVC piping and wheels from an old fertilizer spreader. Their scrappy contraption broke down before the race even began. Defeated, they began kicking the pieces.

But their mishap had just won them an award: the Golden Dinosaur, given to the vehicle that's first to break down.

"A light bulb went off with those kids," she said. "They realized they could still be winners."

The team carried their sculpture -- 250 pounds of it -- nearly 15 miles to the finish line, completing the race around sundown.

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