Phil Smith is a racer to his marrow. He raced mountain bikes professionally for a decade and raced three seasons of motocross for Yamaha and Suzuki. Then, one day, after more than a decade of competition, he walked away, sure the last drop of racing had long left his body. Then he met Melissa. Melissa Smith is pretty close to vegan, works at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, and is becoming a yoga instructor. She didn't think she had a competitive bone in her body until she met Phil. They were both wrong, and together, they found love at 3 mph in a pedal-powered Amish buggy.
Way back in 1999, the American Visionary Art Museum brought the Kinetic Sculpture Race to Baltimore. Contestants build human-powered vehicles-giant works of art, really-and race them from the museum, down the streets of Baltimore, into (and hopefully back out of) the harbor in Canton, and through a muddy obstacle course in Patterson Park. When Phil heard about the race, he checked it out and got hooked. Each year, he went on his bicycle with a backpack full of tools and duct tape to help fix machines as they disintegrated along the track. For a long time, active spectating was enough, but when he and Melissa started dating, he told her about the race and the least competitive person in the world had a different idea. "'Why don't we just do it?'" she remembers saying. "Very shortly after we started dating, we took on this huge venture to build a kinetic sculpture."
With that, they began a near-constant hunt for useful trash. Everything but the wheels on their machines is repurposed. A wrecked 10-foot-long, 100-pound section of underground sewage pipe Melissa fished out of the waste pile became the water wheels. Seven abandoned bicycles they found in the alleys and fields of Catonsville formed much of the drive mechanism. Motorcycle-shipping crates became the frame. The front end of a junk CR-80 dirt bike now steers and stops the beast. This year's windstorms have been a real boon as tons of scrap Styrofoam blown about has become their pontoons. Phil and Melissa call that stuff "sculpture treasure."
Though Phil has no Amish roots, he had the idea in the first year to build a buggy. For months, the two of them spent nearly every free moment together building the buggy. Days before the race, they thought they should see if the thing would float, and most of it did. When one of their precious wheels, handmade by an Amish craftsman, disappeared beneath the waves of the Triadelphia Reservoir, Melissa wanted to leap in after it, but Phil stopped her. Clearly it was love. "I wanted to hire a scuba diver," she says. Instead, "I had to make an excuse to take off work to drive to Lancaster to convince this Amish guy to make a new buggy wheel."
At race time, Phil thought he'd relax and embrace the art, but he was wrong. "As soon as a starting gun [went] off, I clicked right into race mode," he remembers. "I didn't know any other way." The buggy was fast-well, at least by kinetic-sculpture standards. The average human walking speed is 3.1 mph. On a long straight, the buggy could just about hit that. Still, it was enough to get Phil's heart pounding.
"The first year we got in trouble with the motorcycle police," he recounted with just a hint of embarrassment wrestling with pride. "I couldn't make a pass to pass the very last sculpture, so we ducked out past the cones going the wrong way in traffic to get around a big turtle. I got an earful."
After two years of blazing speed with the buggy, as Phil and Melissa's love cemented, they started settling into the whole artistic aesthetic. The following year, Phil harkened back to his childhood. If you remember a show called Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors, you are probably the only other person on the planet other than Phil, but it apparently made quite the impression on him. So Phil and Melissa built Greendustrial Revolution, a front-wheel drive, rear-steering trike, in the image of the show's bad guy, Saw Boss, a freaky hybrid plant-machine with a scowling face and an enormous organic buzzsaw.
"It was a post-apocalyptic machine, after machines take over or something, and this thing rises up to like eliminate all the bullshit we've covered the earth with and fix it," says Phil, describing the concept. He even toiled to make the saw blade look like a concrete cutting wheel, though nobody got that. "It was a complicated idea, but it just looked like a big buzzsaw forest-cutting machine," says Phil. Everyone thought they were the Lorax's enemy.
The machine was as big a mess as the concept. The night before the race, the drive system disintegrated and they had to weld the axles to the wheels, which doesn't sound so bad but it was pretty dangerous. "If the wheel's turning, the pedals are moving, it's all one system, so if you were to slip a pedal and get your leg in there, you'd have 700 pounds of force going against you. It would snap your leg," Phil concluded, "But it was the only way we could take a shot at it, and we did finish." Sounds a lot like marriage, which makes sense, because not long after that race, the two of them tied the knot.
This year they decided to build something low-concept, something that any 2-year-old would understand: a sea monster. It's still under construction for this weekend's race. So far it's working beautifully, though Melissa won't be piloting this year. She's 19 weeks pregnant, and pedaling a 700-pound machine is a bit much to ask of a soon-to-be mom. She is still climbing dumpsters looking for treasure, though, and she did get to take the beast for a test ride through the streets of Catonsville.
"Some people asked us if we're in a parade," Melissa says. "And 'Is this the parade?' and 'Is the parade just [you]?'" Maybe sometimes it is. It's a pretty good parade, just the two of them and their 24-foot sea monster, instantly recognizable to any 2-year-old as a dragon.Copyright © 2015, Baltimore City Paper