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Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race: Fifi lives

Fifi lives.

The iconic, giant pink poodle that is a mainstay of the the American Visionary Art Museum's annual Kinetic Sculpture Race returns for this year's contest that takes oddball, handmade, man-made, totally human-powered vehicles on a meandering and grueling 15-mile, eight-hour route through the streets of Baltimore, the murky waters of Inner Harbor and the temporary but treacherous sand pit and mud bog at Patterson Park.

This year, Bloomsburg transplant Abby Baer, who came to York to attend York College and never left after her 2007 graduation, gets to co-pilot Fifi for the third year.

Fifi is the AVAM entry and, in various incarnations, has been racing for 15 years. The race itself is heading into its 18th year.

Basically a two-bicycle, four-wheel contraption with two pilots sitting side-by-side, Fifi is covered in mesh and steel topped with 300 yards of pink ballerina tulle and plastic pom poms. She returns to her natural pink this year after racing in silver in 2015.

Baer said Theresa Segreti, AVAM’s Director of Design, created Fifi after being inspired while helping her daughter with a food sculpture featuring cotton candy.

"Fifi quickly became an icon, because who doesn’t love a giant amphibious, all-terrain pink poodle?" Baer said.

When not racing, Fifi is on exhibit at the AVAM.

Fifi has won a number of race awards over the year, Baer said, but never the most prestigious -- "The Grand Mediocre Champion" award -- for finishing in the middle of all race entries.

That the most coveted prize among the majority of racers and designers is for mediocrity gives an idea of how serious the race and racers take themselves.

Then there are the students from Baltimore's Jemicy School.

The ACE also is referred to in the race rule book as "THE VERY VERY COMPETITIVE CATEGORY OF AWARDS GRAND OVERALL EAST COAST ACE CHAMPION." The students at the school for dyslexia and other related language-based learning differences, who design, build and pilot their own racers in their Industrial Design class, always enter the ACE racing category. ACE is for racers who have faith in their sculpture designs and are betting they can finish the challenging race without any outside assistance.

According to the AVAM's list of winners from the 2015 race, all four Jemicy entries -- Stripes, Safari Hon, Cheetah Cheetah Pumkin Eatah, and Snake, Rattle & Roll -- won ACE awards. Jemicy students have been racing since 2004 and have picked up several ACEs.

But, Baer said, the students really embody the "Spirit of the Glorious Founder" award, honoring race co-founder Hobart Brown.

"The kids come in with a lot of enthusiasm," Baer said.

August DiMucci, the Kinetic Sculpture Race Industrial Design teacher in the Jemicy Upper School Arts Department, said the students have won the Spirit award several times.

The students also, over the years, have won the Speed award for the fastest elapsed course time after any time-penalty infractions, the People's Choice Award and Best Bribes.

There currently are 36 students in Jemicy's KSR classes, which offer three levels, who have nine entries in this year's race, DiMucci said.

"It's a lot of fun," said Baer, of Spring Garden Township, who also is a development associate at the  AVAM. "And, it's way more strenuous than people think."

All of the vehicles in the Kinetic Sculpture Race must be human-powered, requiring pilots have to use their own physical ability to get their sculpture through the 15-mile course and obstacles.

"It doesn’t sound like a long distance, but when your sculpture weighs 1,500 pounds like Fifi, it makes for a long day," Baer said

The course obstacles include steep hill climbs, water, tight turns, thick mud and sand.

"The race is definitely a test of endurance, both physical and mental because at some point, something is going to go wrong and you will have to figure out how to fix the tire that just bent or bike chain that just broke," Baer said. "You’re strategizing the best approach to conquer the obstacles and constantly thinking about your next move."

Hailing from the Philadelphia/Doylestown area, the Soda Quackers also return to Baltimore this year.

In 2013, the Quackers' first year of racing, the team's 13-foot-tall duck christened Desdemona picked up the Golden Dinosaur Award for being the first entry to break down.

The following year, the Soda Quackers' 16-foot long whale, Wynona, completed the race but out of the awards.

But in 2015, the team garnered the prestigious Engineering Award with Anuli, the Articulated Giraffe, that could move her neck from the ground to 20 feet in the air, blink and roll her eyes, open and close her mouth, furl her tongue, let loose "discordant loud notes" from her horns and spout soap bubbles for her tail end.

This year the Soda Quackers return with Stumti -- Lithuanian for "push," according to the teams website -- a stork carrying her baby in her beak.

"We fully expect Stumti to entertain and charm judges and spectators alike ...," the Quackers' website says.

If you go

What: The 18th annual American Visionary Art Museum Kinetic Sculpture Race.

When: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., May 7, rain or shine.

Where: Starting and finish lines are at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway, Baltimore, Md.

Race spectator admission: Free.

Directions: Follow I-83 South (Jones Falls Expressway) to Lombard Street. Turn right onto East Lombard Street. Turn left onto Light Street. Go slightly left onto Key Highway (The Maryland Science Center is on left hand corner). AVAM is less than a half mile ahead on the corner of Key Highway and Covington Street (On the right, across the street from The Rusty Scupper restaurant).

Parking: The street and lot parking immediately adjacent to the museum will be closed to make room for the  racing entries. Nearby parking is available along Key Highway and the Rusty Scupper public parking lot. Parking also is available at the Canton Waterfront, around Patterson Park and near Federal Park.