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Baltimore’s Kinetic Sculpture Race celebrates mediocrity, shows off wackier side of city

It’s been a rough week for Baltimore.

After a month of headlines featuring the scandal surrounding now-former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, Baltimore’s residents are ready for some distraction.

Enter the 21st Annual Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race, an event that requires participants to design a human-powered piece of art that covers 14 miles through the streets of the city. Obstacles include a mud pit, a sand trap, and a dip into the Inner Harbor.

The race, organized by the American Visionary Arts Museum (AVAM), features a giant pink poodle named Fifi, and Tick-Tock the Croc — a 35-foot crocodile — along with other mobile contraptions.

There are a number of awards, including the Golden Flipper, which goes to the participant that executes the most splashy and disastrous entry into the Inner Harbor.

But Helen Yuen, Director of Marketing and Communications at the AVAM, says winning isn’t everything. The top honor is the Grand Mediocre Champion, granted to the entrant who finishes smack in the middle of the pack. The race is an all-day affair.

“These are completely human-powered works of art, and they must also be amphibious,” so Yuen says of the duration of race, “It takes a minute.”

There are 25 entrants in the race this year according to Yuen. She says spectators are also invited to join in — by coming in costume.

The fact that mobile sculptures that break down in spectacular fashion, and amphibious crafts that fail the buoyancy test are celebrated, spotlight what sets Baltimore apart from many other cities, Yuen said.

“It’s just a fun, wacky day and it shows the creative side of Baltimore,” he said.

The race has three judges, including Maryland State Delegate Luke Clippinger, who said he’s ready. He’s even got the right costume: Black robes and a traditional white judge’s wig.

Clippinger jokes that under race rules, it’s OK to bribe the judges. But quickly adds that as a member of the Maryland General Assembly, he can’t accept anything valued over $20 dollars.

“But sometimes they give me a little pin,” he said.

Clippinger says he’s kept the pins that he’s collected over the years on his judge’s robe, “So, it’s getting a little busy with the pins.”

Clippinger was at AVAM Friday night, checking out the entries, and said participants pour a lot into their sculptures. “They’re people who love their city, who adore their city,” said Clippinger.

While many people may only know Baltimore from gritty headlines, Clippinger said the Kinetic Sculpture race, and other events that highlight the quirky side of Baltimore tell the rest of the world, “We are not done fighting for this city, and we will make this city the greatest city in America.”

Here’s a spectators guide to the race.

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