Cross an abstract parade float with an all-terrain, pedal-powered vehicle and make it a competition and you get an event its participants call a “kinetic sculpture race”. These drivable works-of-art are put to the test each spring in events held across the United States.

The first kinetic sculpture race happened in 1969, after a California sculptor added two wheels and metal scraps to his son’s tricycle, and a fellow artist challenged the “pentacycle” to a race. When a dozen other residents also took up the challenge during their town’s annual art festival, the Kinetic Grand Championships were born. The event is held every Memorial Day weekend in Ferndale, California, as artists race their bizarre wares across a 42-mile course over three days, including sections on land, sand, mud and water.   

The most important rule is that vehicles must be propelled forward by kinetic energy (per the race’s name), meaning wind, solar, gravity or pedalling-power as opposed to stored or potential energy like batteries or gasoline.  Each vehicle must have at least one pilot steering the craft, but can have as many people  as the craft can fit. Organizers encourage all pilots and crew to wear coordinating costumes to bolster the theme of the entry.

Finishing the course with the fastest speed may be admirable but is not necessarily the goal; the race’s founder lost the event he created, so the “mediocre award”, given for finishing the race dead in the middle of the pack, remains one of the most coveted prizes. Other awards are granted for art, pageantry and engineering. The “grand champion” earns the most points across all categories, including speed.

On 5 May, Baltimore, Maryland, will hold the East Coast Kinetic Sculpture Race Championships on an eight-hour, 15-mile race. The city’s American Visionary Art Museum, who sponsors the event, displays many of the vehicles throughout the year.

Smaller events in Corvallis, Oregon, Longmont, Colorado, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, are held throughout the spring and summer. In the creative spirit of the event, all are open to anyone with the ambition to build a human-powered work of art.