Ed Istwan lives for the moment when the racer reaches the shore, rising out of the water pedaling a vehicle they designed.

He sees it in their eyes.

“They owned those three seconds,” said Istwan, a volunteer judge for the Kinetic Sculpture Race. “And for those three seconds, they are on top of the world until the next challenge comes at them.”

Then he lifts a bullhorn, yelling at the competitors — “What’s your favorite sandwich?” — a reminder that this race is meant to be a little bit absurd, where the fastest don’t get first prize and bribes are the norm.

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An annual festival dating to 1999, the spring Baltimore event invites racers — or, as they are called, pilots — to show off their human-powered sculptures in a 15-mile course that traverses the city, up steep hills, through mud and sand, and into the water. With roots in a small city in California, the initial races in Baltimore were much smaller in scale, with seven or eight vehicles, Istwan said. The energy of the racers, their creativity, the joyfulness — it is all contagious, he said.

Waves of sculptures, like Fifi, the big, pink poodle, the six-pilot-powered Tick Tock crocodiles and many other vehicles decorated to fit the race’s theme — this year’s is monuments and masterpieces — take over the city. Some begin to work on their vehicles a few months later and work on them for almost a year. Others might wing something in the last minute or walk and swim the course as an homage to “The Flintstones.” It has been done before.

As many as 40 vehicles have been part of a race, though the number of entrants dropped to about 25 this year, which the organizers attribute to the pandemic. But it hasn’t tamped down the excitement, especially from the more than 120 people working behind the scenes.

American Visionary Art Museum, which sponsors the festival, relies on volunteers to bring the race to life, said Beka Plum, the director of education.

For volunteers such as Istwan and Luke Clippinger, the day is one of their favorite times of the year. Clippinger, who represents the state’s 46th district in the House of Delegates, got a new wig to break in for his 14th year as a judge.

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On the day of the race, Clippinger and his partner Patrick have breakfast at Koba Cafe in full attire; Clippinger in a black robe and white, curly wig, and Patrick wearing a bowler hat as a self-declared bailiff. They get to the museum in Federal Hill right before the race, when volunteers are running safety checks.

Mary Ann Kinsella-Meier and other Kinetic Kops study the human-powered, amphibious vehicles carefully, checking the brakes and making sure the pilots have their safety equipment.

“Um, that doesn’t look quite right,” she will say. “I’m feeling a little hungry, you know.”

If she gets a piece of candy, she might just look away.

Kinsella-Meier wouldn’t have taken the bribe if there was poor sportsmanship or cheating, like knocking someone out of their way, she said.

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“Everyone’s just got to be kind to each other,” she said.

After the kops finish their rounds, pilots place their bikes onto Key Highway, heading to the Canton Waterfront. Clippinger drives his fellow judges in the golf cart, following the racers. As they pass through crowds, they hand out smiles, drawings that are glued on sticks, which are mandatory for spectators. If they see a kid on the road, they have to give a high-five, and make a huge deal out of it. At the pier, they watch out for who could earn the “Golden Flipper,” the best water entry award.

A participant in the Kinetic Sculpture Race looks up towards judges before he gives them a bribe during the Canton Waterfront obstacle on May 6, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

A seasoned kayaker and a veteran volunteer, Bob Justice became involved after taking his grandson to watch the race in 2008.

He doesn’t think he would be so good at being a “chicken” — volunteers dressed in feathers and beaks who give directions — as he is just not very conversational. But being in the water, that he can do. If he sees signs of trouble, he paddles to pilots to make sure they are safe and helps take the vehicle back to the shore.

He loves that the race is human-powered and appreciates the huge entourage of people riding bikes. He said it brings “a little bit of strangeness” to the city. It helps keep Baltimore weird.

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“There’s too much conformity in this world a little bit, too many people conforming too much to the standards ... of the commercial requirements for life,” he said.

After the water obstacle, the judges leave for Patterson Park, where they drive through a sandpit — “People need to pay more attention to the sandpit,” Clippinger added, it can be tricky — then, down and up the hills and through the mud. After passing by the observatory, the racers go down Lombard Street, where people sit outside their rowhomes to cheer.

In the afternoon, judges make their way back through downtown.

Then, Clippinger said, “we engage in deeply contentious, hugely contentious discussions about the awards that always work out. And we don’t really take incredibly seriously.”

Can he say anything about this conversation?

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“It’s extremely private.”

The award ceremony closes the race in the early evening.

The judges hold up the Best Bribe award. This award goes to the team presenting the best gifts to encourage cops and Judges to absolve minor infractions.
The judges hold up the Best Bribe award. This award goes to the team presenting the best gifts to encourage Kinetic Kops and judges to absolve minor infractions. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
A judge bestows an award on participants after the Kinetic Sculpture Race on May 6, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

They give out a “mediocre prize,” a “people’s choice award” and prizes to the fastest pilots, of course, and one for costumes. Pilots who come in second to last get an award too, as do vehicles with the best engineering. Judges also assess the best bribes, none of which ever amount to more than $20 collectively.

There’s also an award for the best sock puppet, a “truly critical addition” to sculptures, Clippinger said.

“They’re so important they’re not judged by me or my other fellow judges,” he said. “There is a secret judge who does nothing but judge the sock puppets.” (It’s a child.)

Years ago, about four high schoolers showed their sculpture to Istwan, made up of two bikes clamped together using PVC pipes. Istwan, in his second or third year as a race judge, hesitated to say anything. The engineering wasn’t too sophisticated, and the teens hadn’t tried to use it in the water. The two pilots would have to share a brain, Istwan remembered, pedaling in tandem to move gracefully. He wished them luck.

Their vehicle broke down after two turns, Istwan said. When the teenagers began to point fingers and blame each other, Hobart Brown, the founder of kinetic sculpture racing, interceded. They could still be part of the race, he told them. They just had to figure out how.

As Istwan waited for the pilots up the hill, he saw the kids out of the corner of his eye. They held their bikes — “at this point, this vehicle is an absolute albatross,” he said — over their heads. They walked the entire length of the race.

Those racers must be in their mid-30s now, maybe they have children, maybe they are teachers.

“I wonder if like that spirit that caused them to like, pick that vehicle up and find that way of staying in the race, is still with them,” he said.

They finished dead last. They got the biggest round of applause.

Clara Longo de Freitas is a neighborhood reporter covering East Baltimore communities. Before joining the Banner, she interned at The Baltimore Sun as an emerging news and community reporter. She also has design and illustration experience with several news organizations, including The Hill and NPR.

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