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Food-themed kinetic sculptures race through city streets in annual spring event

Simon Guggenheim had never been to Baltimore's Kinetic Sculpture Race — a 15-mile jaunt through the city featuring wacky, handmade sculptures on wheels. But he had an idea of what to expect.

After all, the event is sponsored by the American Visionary Art Museum, a Federal Hill institution that celebrates outsider art.

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"I've been to the museum before, so I knew to expect it to be kooky and awesome," Guggenheim said.

Guggenheim, along with a bunch of friends, came up from Washington on Saturday wearing headbands with fish sprouting from them to cheer on the "Holy Mackerel" team. Some members of the cheerleading crew had T-shirts, too, but the unseasonably cool weather kept them hidden behind sweatshirts and jackets.

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A Baltimore tradition since 1999, this year's Kinetic Sculpture Race drew 29 teams that participated in the daylong trek from Federal Hill around the Inner Harbor to Canton and back again. This year's entries were supposed to have a food theme, in keeping with the museum's current exhibit, "YUMMM! The History, Fantasy, and Future of Food."

The sculptures must be human-powered, which means most teams modify bicycles or tricycles as the bases of their entries. The course includes a short foray into the water at Canton Waterfront Park, so the sculptures also had jugs, foam or other flotation devices. A mud obstacle at Patterson Park meant the sculptures had to have traction, too.

The "Holy Mackerel" sculpture was decorated with sea creatures, including a toothy shark, lobsters, fish and a lime-and-teal octopus. Team "PLATYPUS Australian Cold-Cut Sub" featured eight pilots pedaling away beneath a huge sub bun with cold-cuts, lettuce, tomatoes and onions hanging over their heads.

The museum's own perennial entry — a giant, fluffy pink poodle named Fifi — was outfitted with a "Fifi's Diner" visor, cat's-eye glasses and a waitress' order pad hanging around her neck.

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The teams competed not for any prize money or much more than bragging rights. Some of the awards up for grabs included Grand Mediocre Champion, for finishing exactly in the middle of the pack, and Golden Dinosaur, for either the first or the most memorable breakdown.

One team used the water as inspiration for its kinetic sculpture, dubbed "You Stay Trashy Baltimore."

The sculpture paid homage to Mr. Trash Wheel, the googly-eyed floating device operated by the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore that gobbles up trash where the Jones Falls empties into the Inner Harbor.

The two-seater trash wheel-sculpture was piloted by Ariel Wickham of Bolton Hill and Maura Roth-Gormley of Charles Village, proudly the only all-female piloting operation in the race. (Although they had both men and women on their energetic, 11-member pit crew.)

The trash team (Official name: Team 1800 Lbs., for the heaviest sculpture they've ever entered) started with 4-foot-wide custom steel wheels and brainstormed where to go from there. "What could we make that also has large wheels?" Roth-Gormley asked.

The answer: Mr. Trash Wheel.

The team married food and trash in its sculpture, attaching bits of food-related garbage to the conveyor belt on the sculpture — just as the real Mr. Trash Wheel lifts trash from the water. Along the race course, team members picked up more trash to add to the sculpture or stow in recycling bins that they carried on their backs.

"A lot of people have given us trash to put on our conveyor belt, from water bottles to dirty diapers," Roth-Gormley said.

They also sang trash-inspired pop songs as they went along, including "Purple Trash" and "Oops, I Found Trash Again."

Music also played a key part for the team behind "Tick Tock the Croc," a six-seater crocodile that pushed the rule limiting sculptures to a length of 35 feet.

Tony Caruso, who also calls himself "DJ Croc Daddy," said he programmed a song list to keep his team motivated and to entertain the crowd as they pedaled by. He queued up "Eye of the Tiger" to inspire the team up hills.

For the first several years, the team raced an "Alice in Wonderland"-inspired caterpillar before switching to the "Peter Pan"-meets-steampunk crocodile, Caruso said.

The Tick Tock team, now in its ninth year of participating in the race, includes members with a mix of talents, including a carpenter, engineer, teachers, students, a rocket scientist and Caruso's teenage daughter, Angelica Caruso, who dressed as Tinker Bell and handed out fairy dust to children along the route. Most hail from Crownsville and Millersville, but some come from as far away as Pennsylvania to race.

Building and updating the kinetic sculpture is just as fun as race day itself, which goes by in a "blur," Caruso said.

"We have so much fun with the camaraderie," he said.

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