Air guitar god? Bog snorkeling champ? Celebrating the world's wackiest hobbies

Story highlights

  • Good at air guitar? The pros earn cash through ad campaigns and festival gigs
  • Participants of the World Bogsnorkeling Championships brave scorpions and leeches.
  • The All-American Soap Box Derby has launched racing and engineering careers
  • The Kinetic Sculpture Race utilizes the Baltimore city streets and harbor

Some hobbies take talent, others don't, but the real skill is turning your weird past-time into an international event. Whether one's passion is to sculpt masterpieces out of sand or charge at Dapper Dans with an umbrella, somewhere, there's a festival dedicated to honing those skills.

Few hobbies invite ridicule like air guitar. Yet the Air Guitar World Championships in Oulu, Finland, regularly attracts over 10,000 "airheads" (this year's event, which took place last week, was no exception). Though the judges seem to take the sport seriously, judging contestants on their technical skills, stage presence and "airiness," the festival started as a bit of a lark.

"We started out in 1996 to promote the Music Video Festival. It was a half joke," says Hanna Jakku, the event's co-founder. Since those early days, however, the championship has matured. Contrary to popular opinion, says Jakku, air guitar takes talent.

"When it comes to competitive playing, the standard is quite high. It's a contest of showmanship. It's very well timed and choreographed and there's drama to each performance. Think of it as a combination of stand-up comedy and rock opera," she says.

True aficionados can even earn a little extra cash. Last year's winner, Justin "Nordic Thunder" Howard, scored a contract with soft drink brand Dr. Pepper and, like many of his contemporaries, routinely works the festival circuit.

The strange hobby capital of the world, however, is Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales. The tiny town hosts the Man versus Horse Challenge, the Welsh Open Stoneskimming Championships and the ever-popular World Bogsnorkelling Championships, the latter of which was held on August 25.

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"It came about through drunken discussion in a local pub with a man who was trying to bring in more business to the village," explains Bernice Benton, from Llanwrtyd Tourism, of the bogsnorkelling contest, which last year attracted 177 entrants. The event requires snorkeled and finned-participants to swim two laps in a 180-foot peat bog.

"It's muddy, so it's dark and you can't see, and a lot of people aren't used to breathing through a snorkel. Generally, it's pretty cold, and you also have to deal with the leeches and water scorpions," says Benton.

Contestants don't do it for the money (all proceeds go to charity), as much as the glory. According to Benton, some train quite hard for the event, and go as far as to snorkel blindfolded for practice.

Even those competitions that are today taken in earnest have some pretty arbitrary origins. In 1933, Ohio-based photographer Myron Scott came across a group of boys racing in homemade vehicles, and decided to stage an impromptu race. The event has since morphed into one of most popular events on the DIY calendar, the All-American Soap Box Derby, in which kids and teenagers race homemade cars.

Despite its name, the event attracts an international crowd, and many of the pre-adult contestants have grown up to become famous racers and engineers.

"Soap Box Derby racing teaches you not only the racing, but how to build a car, and what goes into making it fast," says Bobby Dinkins, the marketing director for the event.

Contestants range in age from 7 to 17, and all have to qualify either by winning their local race, or racking up enough points in a rally race. As scholarships make up the winning booty, there's a lot at stake for potential winners. As a result, Dinkins notes, many practice pretty hard.

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"These kids are racing all year long to qualify," he says.

In Baltimore, Maryland, children and adults alike take part in a more whimsical dash: the Kinetic Sculpture Race. The race is composed of human-powered works of art designed to travel over land, mud and water (Fred Flintstone's car would qualify). Sculptures resemble anything and everything, from flying pigs to fluffy pink dogs.

Prizes are awarded for conking out first, for maintaining middle ground, and for keeping all feet off the floor.

"We give out almost as many awards as there are vehicles," explains Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, founder of the American Visionary Art Museum, which hosts the event.

The race incorporates 15 miles of downtown Baltimore and the harbor and, if not Baltimore's biggest sporting event, it is certainly its wackiest. Volunteers dressed as chickens help guide vehicles along the right path, while bearded doctors in nursing uniforms are on standby should any injuries occur.

"So much of art is self-involved," explains Hoffberger. "This is a masterpiece of how to bring joy to an entire city."