Lowell Kinetic Sculpture Race Brings Fun Back to City’s Streets and River

Two men dressed as pirates pedal a vehicle through a mud pit as people cheer Image by Ed Brennen
Freshman mechanical engineering major Chris Jorge-Rosario, left, and his co-pilot from the Lawrence Youth Development Organization, Victor Rivera, make quick work of the Maddening Mud Pit on East Campus during the recent Lowell Kinetic Sculpture Race.

By Ed Brennen

Their pirate ship sailed through Bone-Shaker Alley and the Maddening Mud Pit before taking on serious water in the Merrimack River.

Then, an unexpected, real-life medical emergency revealed their team’s true character.

A pair of mechanical engineering majors — junior Giancarlos Jaime-Guzman and freshman Chris Jorge-Rosario — faced all of this in the recent Lowell Kinetic Sculpture Race, an annual event celebrating science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics (STEAM).

Started in Northern California in 1969, the race came to Lowell in 2016 thanks to Race Director Michael Roundy, an assistant teaching professor of art and design in the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. This year’s race was the first since 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re so glad to be back,” Roundy said at the race’s downtown starting line on Market Street, a carnival-like scene where spectators checked out vehicles and costumes, a party band played and course marshals dressed as bananas danced to Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl.”

Using items like bicycles, boats and recycled materials, teams from as far away as California, Nevada and Maryland built human-powered, Burning Man-like “kinetic sculptures” that had to traverse a seven-mile course of cobblestones, asphalt, water, mud and sand — portions of which are on the UMass Lowell campus.

Two young men dressed as pirates pose for a photo in front of a pirate ship vehicle Image by Ed Brennen
Mechanical engineering majors Chris Jorge-Rosario, left, and Giancarlos Jaime-Guzman helped build "Howard's Revenge," the Lawrence Youth Development Organization's entry in the Lowell Kinetic Sculpture Race.

Jaime-Guzman and Jorge-Rosario are veterans of the race, having competed several times with a team from their hometown Lawrence Youth Development Organization (YDO), where they met as middle school students. Their team leader, Director of STEM Programs Douglas Prime ’88, ’91, worked at UML for over a decade and co-founded the Future Engineers Center.

This year’s YDO entry, the pirate-themed “Howard’s Revenge,” was named after the organization’s founder, Howard Sticklor.

“It’s a ghost ship because we came down with a bad case of scurvy over the last three years,” explained Jaime-Guzman, alluding to the race’s pandemic hiatus.

The ship consisted of two fat-tire mountain bikes welded together with sections of a rowboat and three 50-gallon barrels for flotation. Jorge-Rosario and high school student Victor Rivera piloted the vehicle, while Jaime-Guzman and a half-dozen teammates followed on bicycles — all dressed as pirates and cheerfully yelling “Arrr!” at thousands of spectators lining the course on the sunny Saturday afternoon.

Jaime-Guzman, who plans to pursue a career in automotive engineering, says the race was a fun and unique way to apply his engineering skills.

A man in a striped shirt, sun glasses and a hat with antlers holds a microphone and speaks to people outdoors Image by Ed Brennen
Race Director Michael Roundy, an assistant teaching professor of art and design, gets the crowd fired up at the starting line on Market Street.

“On top of that, I get to meet people from across the country with the same shared interest: building cool, wacky vehicles,” he said while handing out gold coin chocolates and mugging for photos with kids at the starting line.

“There’s nothing else like this event. It’s so ecstatic and energetic,” Jorge-Rosario added. “I really like being able to come together as a community and race with like minds.”

While their vehicle breezed through the downtown cobblestone streets and Maddening Mud Pit, a 50-foot quagmire set up near the Tsongas Center, it ran into trouble when it entered the Merrimack River at Heritage State Park.

“We had an unexpected failure with one of the flotation devices on the back and it started taking up water so fast. I didn’t know what was going on,” said Jorge-Rosario, who found his side of the vehicle fully submerged about 10 feet from shore in a matter of seconds.

Race organizers were able to pull the ship back to land, where the team waited for all the other vehicles to complete the river obstacle before resuming the course back to downtown in last place.

A bicycle-powered pirate ship vehicle crosses a bridge as people on bikes ride alongside Image by Ed Brennen
'Howard's Revenge' cruises across the Howe Bridge toward North Campus during the Lowell Kinetic Sculpture Race.

Jorge-Rosario said they were able to overtake three or four teams before they came upon an unexpected scene on Father Morissette Boulevard: A man who had been filming the race while riding on an electric, one-wheeled hoverboard had hit a pothole and was sent flying about 10 feet on the pavement. The team stopped and waited with the man until an ambulance arrived moments later.

“He only had a couple of scratches, but he was pretty messed up,” Jorge-Rosario said. “If it wasn’t for his helmet, things could have been way worse.”

Once the man was loaded in the ambulance, the team resumed its ride to the Market Street finish line, overtaking a few teams on the way. While they finished toward the back of the pack, they received the People’s Choice Award for their good deed at the post-race party.

“That meant more than winning, for sure,” Jorge-Rosario said.

A woman and man wearing crowns and red capes stand outside Image by Ed Brennen
Assoc. Dean Sue Kim and fellow Royal Judge Henri Marchand are introduced to the crowd at the starting line.

Sue Kim, associate dean for undergraduate studies in the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, served as one of the race’s “Royal Judges” along with State Rep. Vanna Howard and Henri Marchand, the city’s former director of cultural affairs and special events.

Courtney Coviello, a senior digital media major from Dracut, Massachusetts, had never attended the race before. As production assistant for the Lowell TeleMedia Center, she films events in the city like the Folk Festival and Southeast Asian Water Festival.

“This is awesome. It’s probably my favorite event in Lowell right now,” Coviello said as she prepared to capture footage of the mud pit. “It’s unlike anything I’ve seen.”