Chapter 1: The Beginning
Spirit Buggy was born in the fall of 1984 under rather inauspicious circumstances. The University Administration had discovered financial irregularities in Spirit’s handling of its budget during the previous school year and was threatening to no longer fund Spirit. Eventually the Administration agreed to fund Spirit, but only if Spirit would increase its participation in campus activities. Particularly, the Administration demanded that Spirit participate in Spring Carnival. This included doing both Booth and Buggy. The Administration’s reasoning for this was to keep black student leaders engaged with our campus rather going to Pitt to join black fraternities and sororities. Their ultimate goal was make CMU a more integrated and diverse campus. In retrospect, I find their insight amazingly wise. It worked.
At the time, buggy was quite a change for Spirit. Then Spirit’s campus activities included hosting a Fashion Show, a Talent Show, several dance party fund raisers featuring the local deejay Sly Jock, and, unofficially, several IM sport teams. But Spirit did not do Booth and had never ever done Buggy.
This was also quite a change for the campus. It had been years since a new team had tried to compete in Sweepstakes. At the time, Sweepstakes was dominated by three fraternities, PiKA, Sigma Nu, and Beta, and one independent organization, CIA, that had won the men’s competition 10 years earlier – the only independent ever to do so. Spirit Buggy was soon to change all of this.
Spirit’s first buggy task was to find a Buggy Chair, someone who would oversee the entire Buggy effort. There was only one Spirit member who had any Buggy experience – he had participated with the independent SDC – and he, unfortunately, was not in school during the fall semester. Instead, Spirit turned to one Robert Bowie, a sophomore who was serving as the new Spirit Treasurer. Bowie, luckily as it would turn out, had a predilection to volunteer for activities that he really didn’t have time for and to him, at the time, Buggy was just one more activity.
As fall turned to spring, Bowie struggled to interest Spirit folks in Buggy. Unfortunately, he was not particularly successful. Buggy became a money losing proposition for Spirit as the Sweepstakes Committee levied fine after fine against Spirit for neglecting certain required tasks like sweeping the course. Finally, after nights of complaining and cajoling, Bowie managed to convince his roommate to go out to Rolls one morning, so Spirit could avoid being fined on more time. His roommate, convinced that getting up in the wee hours of Saturday and Sunday mornings was close to obscene, thought that Buggy was a completely ridiculous activity, but for his friend, he agreed to do it.
By no means is it an exaggeration to write that that decision to get up that one morning changed my life forever. For me, Spirit Buggy has been one of the most important experiences of my life full of friendship, growth, excitement, pride, tolerance, and learning. Scores of Spirit Buggy alumni over the years have said similar things. If nothing else, with confidence, I can write that Spirit Buggy, in its own little way, has made the world a better place.
My crotchety old self has occasionally been irritated about how recent SRS teams have emphasized the family aspect of SRS. Us OGs where all about the hardware – trophies and medals. But last year, visiting the Bowies, there came a time when Bowie and I, two 50+ year old men, were curled up on the couch together. Sue (Bowie’s wife) looked down at is and said to Lana (my wife), “You know, they’re really each other’s first wives.” I don’t know … maybe it’s always been about family.
Now, back to the story.
After that first morning, I knew I was hooked by Buggy. The combination of athletics, technology, team building, and competition enthralled me. From that day to my graduation two and a half years later (Bowie’s graduation took a bit longer), Bowie and I served together as dual Chairs of Spirit Buggy unwittingly starting a tradition of co-chairs that continues to this day (at least most of the time; we’ve experimented with 1 and 3 and it’s not worked so well. BTW, diarchy has a great and ancient history including Sparta's joint kingdom, Rome's consuls, and Carthage's judges.
The first year was extremely difficult for Spirit Buggy. For those of us already hooked, it was a trying learning experience. For the rest of Spirit, I feel we were somewhat of an oddity. After all, Spirit had never done Buggy before, so why, people asked, should we do it now?
With a borrowed travesty of a buggy (Pegasus from ZBT) , hastily put together push teams, and illegal support in truck (my brother’s roommate who was a CMU EE grad student when buggy was only open to undergrads), Spirit participated in the 1985 Sweepstakes. In the men’s competition, we quite literally finished last, but we did finish. In the women’s competition, we did much better finishing seventh and beginning another Spirit Buggy tradition that unfortunately has waned over the years. In our early years, it was Spirit’s women’s push teams that challenged and inspired the rest of the team. SRS was built on our women’s push team, We need to remember this.
CHAPTER 2: The Road to Victory
In the summer of 1985 visions of a three year plan began to form in the minds of those Spirit members seriously infected by Buggy. Buggy – I’ve since discovered – is akin to malaria. It’s a powerful obsession which seems to infect the afflicted for life. So that summer, we kept thinking about Buggy again and again. We wrote letter (real letters!) back and forth between us. We began to see our first year as a simple effort to compete, our coming year was the year to show our competitiveness – to win trophies (at the time, the top six men’s teams and top three women’s teams received trophies), and our third year of competition – and my senior year in school – as the year to win it all.
We broke down Buggy into its fundamentals: recruiting, team building, pushing, light rigid buggies, fast wheels, and driving. We realized that tapping into Spirit we had the potential of having the strongest push teams in Sweepstakes history. We realized that with solid engineering light rigid buggies could be relatively easily built. Through my own hometown neighbor – an old time expert in Soap Box Derby - we had access to the secrets of heat and chemical treatment which are needed to make hard rubber tires roll fast. Now all we needed were good motivated people to do all the pushing, building, and driving.
Back on campus in the fall of 1985, we immediately started to recruit for Spirit Buggy. We focused on attracting existing Spirit members, but did not limit ourselves just to those already in Spirit. We recruited other promising people we knew from varsity sports, classes, ROTC, and the dorms. One freshman’s fate was sealed – he was Bowie’s and my neighbor - when Bowie noticed he arrived on campus with a tool box. After a quick conversation without really knowing what he was committing himself too he became a Spirit Buggy mechanic. Two years later Dave Sowers lead Spirit Buggy to the men’s record. A record that stood for twenty years – the longest running record in the history of Sweepstakes.
Primarily African American, through our recruiting efforts, Spirit now included white, Asian, and Hispanic members. For some, this was controversial. But for me this was part of the beauty of Spirit Buggy. In a strongly African American context, Spirit Buggy became a living example of racial diversity, tolerance, and inclusion.
As the year progressed, we built three new buggies and attracted enough pushers, drivers, mechanics, and flaggers to field four men’s teams and three women’s teams on Raceday. And we became fast. Unfortunately, we were still too inexperienced not to make mistakes just about every day we touched one of our buggies. For example, one day at freeroll practice each of our three new buggies was involved in an accident. One – because the window fogged up and the driver couldn’t see – was driven into a curb and, quite literally, shattered. Another simply bent under the weight of the driver. A third was hit by another team’s buggy during a pass test. But we kept on. The shattered buggy was rebuilt, the bent one strengthened, and the third emerged unscathed and earned its nickname – The Tank. For Tom Felmley, the constant that is Spirit Buggy, this was his “Worst Weekend”. Along with three buggies being injured, he failed a test and got dumped by his then girlfriend. But Tom and the rest of us persevered.
Finally Raceday came. I can’t remember what happened to our first two buggies, but after our B team driver made an amazing pass in the Chute, our B team clocked a top six time (very important because the top six teams qualified for the finals). Unfortunately, the buggy failed the drop test and the team was disqualified thus beginning the dubious Spirit Buggy tradition of finding various and unique ways of being disqualified. Our A team was even faster and through the grace of God was not disqualified.
I say by the grace of God because that was the only explanation we came up with at the time and still the only one that resonates. As our A buggy began its freeroll, the locking collar which kept one of its rear wheels attached flew off the buggy. This was grounds for immediate disqualification, but fortunately no one noticed it at the time. As the buggy went through its freeroll, the wheel began to inch down its axle. Finally, one side of the wheel came off the axle, the wheel canted a bit, and wheel locked on to the axle. After the race, we noticed that the locking collar was missing, kicked the wheel back down the axle, put a hand on the axle to hide the missing locking collar, and walked the buggy back to the staging truck. The Sweepstakes Safety Chair followed right after (an immediate safety inspection was required for any buggy which placed in the finals).
In the moment just before the Safety Chair came into our truck, a locking collar with an attached allen wrench was placed in the hands of one of our mechanics and he was able to slip the locking collar down the axle and tighten it. The Safety Chair never noticed and we passed the safety inspection. Strangely, absolutely no one recalled handing the new locking collar to our mechanic. To this day, it’s a complete mystery and us old timers - with absolutely no blasphemous intent I must add - refer to it this incident as The Locking Collar from God.
The next day was for the women’s heats and the men’s finals (at the time there were no qualifying heats for the women). Our women lead the way again and won in a tremendous fashion breaking the previous record by over six seconds (a great achievement given that top women’s team complete the race in about 160 seconds). Our men repeated their previous day’s efforts – this time with very tight locking collars – and placed fourth. We became the second independent organization to ever win a men’s trophy.
In was a very exciting time for Spirit. We were noticed by rest of the campus in a way that had never happened before. We had participated in a campus tradition and been victorious. The fraternities, sororities, and independent organization that had never thought much if anything about Spirit now were forced to acknowledge Spirit’s presence on campus. For those of us involved, there was a great sense of pride. We wore our Spirit Buggy t-shirts around campus and saw others looking at us with grudging respect.
CHAPTER 3: Victory
The next year nearly the whole Spirit organization became passionate about Buggy. We knew our women could win again and felt strongly, with a little improvement and a bit of luck, that our men could win as well. In every aspect of Buggy – pushing, driving, building, flagging – people were truly committed. Even those not involved directly in Buggy were supportive with the occasional kind word and helping hand.
Our one new focus that year was to design and build a great buggy. We knew our buggies were good, but they weren’t great. We had to rely on our push teams to win. If we had a top buggy, we felt that no other team could come close to us. So we worked and worked and worked and finally a new revolutionary buggy was created. Christened Quantum Leap this buggy was a carbon fiber monocoque which used the latest in high tech composite materials. The key to the design was a unique removable windshield that allowed the driver to enter the buggy without compromising the tube shape which gave the buggy its rigidity. It’s this buggy, nicknamed QL, which held the men’s record for 20 years and is the mother of all subsequent Spirit buggies (as well as every top buggy raving today in 2018) . But in ’87, QL was not our A buggy. It was still too untested and its driver too green. So, instead, Sting, the buggy that bent the year before, was our A buggy.
Once again, Raceday came. The first day in qualifiers our men’s A team clocked a 2:11.35, an excellent time for a cold day. As the first day ended, we found ourselves with the top time beating out the second place team, Beta, by over a second. The next day, our women lead the way once again, dropped their previous record by over a second and a half, and repeated as champions. But as the day went on, it began to get colder and colder. Finally, there was only one heat left to go, that of our men’s A team. As the start clock counted down, it began to snow and road started to get wet. Since it is unsafe to roll buggies on a wet road, the Sweepstake Chairman finally canceled the race. By rule, the winner was determined by the first day’s time. Thus Spirit, for the very first time, won the men’s buggy championship.
Ironically, within minutes of the race being called the weather shifted – it was Pittsburgh after all – and a bright warm sun came out. We quickly placed giant speakers on top of the truck, popped numerous champagne bottles brought to us by Ms. Hill (later Dr. Hill, the head of CMAP/CMARC and a mentor, guide, and mother to this introverted geeky white boy from Ohio and countless other black, brown, yellow, and white kids for many years – Gloria passed in 2017 and is missed by many), and began to dance. The whole campus got to see Spirit celebrating a dual victory in Carnegie Mellon’s most lasting tradition.
In three years we went from goat to champion. In three years we went from folks literally pointing and laughing as us to people applauding us. I discovered that folks I hardly knew wanted to shake my hand. It was truly amazing.
And with that, I graduated.
CHAPTER 4: Dominance
The remainder of this account is quite different from that above since it’s from the perspective of an alumni, not a student. I am sure I have left out many things important to the people who were active in Spirit Buggy during these years and to these people, I apologize. And with that, back to the story.
The next year, many people on campus felt that Spirit’s victories were a fluke, an ugly blip in the storied history of Sweepstakes. Unfortunately for them, Spirit did not agree. Hungrier than ever, the team prepared the whole year for another Raceday. This time QL would be Spirit’s A buggy.
The 1988 Sweepstakes was full of surprises. Out of nowhere, DU racing a unique two wheeled buggy with a shell (bicycle type buggies had been run in the past) set a new men’s record in qualifiers. Up to the challenge, Spirit’s men’s A team broke that record. The next day after DU’s buggy crashed and Spirit broke the record yet again. This record – 2:06.2 – remained for 20 years. It is the longest standing record in the history of Buggy.
Spirit’s men’s team won again in 1989, came in second to PiKA in 1990, and won again in ’91, ’92, and ’93. When I returned to campus for the first time for Carnival in ’92, I overheard one student say, “Spirit always wins.” A far cry from 1985.
Spirit’s victory in 1992 was particularly noteworthy. In the final heat, in the beginning of the freeroll, Spirit and Sigma Nu hit and became locked together resulting in very slow times for both teams. The Sweepstakes Committee decided to grant both teams a reroll. So, with only 10 minutes rest, Spirit’s men’s A had to race again. The tension was incredible. Most people in the crowd felt that between the damage to the buggy, frayed nerves of the drivers, and the tired legs of the pushers Spirit had no chance. On top of this, due to injuries suffered in the first day of races, Spirit’s A team hill 1 and hill 2 pushers had to be replaced by our C team hill 1 and hill 2. PiKA, now the only rival to Spirit, had earlier posted an excellent time and was waiting for Spirit to falter. In what was truly one of the most amazing athletic performance that I have ever seen, Spirit’s A team pushers went out one more time and won the race. That was one of the many days I lost my voice cheering for Spirit.
That year was also the zenith of Spirit’s buggy building program. Under the guidance of Chair and head mechanic Karl Lentz, Spirit seemingly effortlessly produced finely crafted buggies faster and lighter than any buggies we had built before. His team’s crowning achievement was Shaka Zulu, a beautiful buggy that raced for 10 years. When I walked into the buggy room in ’92 the night before Raceday, I saw Karl in a calm spotless workspace – a far cry from the chaos I oversaw. Karl’s legacy was victory, a beautiful buggy, and complete confidence. In 1997, just before Carnival, Karl lost his fight against cancer. He is missed.
In those years, the Spirit women’s also battled with PiKA. Spirit won twice and PiKA the other four times. But in the two years that Spirit women did win, they broke their own record both times.
CHAPTER 5: A Continuing Tradition
By 1994 I began to notice a strange phenomenon. When I returned to campus and talked with Spirit Buggy folks, I found they knew me. And they knew my stories. They knew about the Locking Collar from God, Tom’s Worse Weekend, and the Night of Red Bull. And, of course they had their own stories.
All of a sudden, I realized that Spirit Buggy had a tradition, had a history, and had a philosophy. When I was a student, all I had thought about was the three year plan that ended with victory in my senior year. But now, many other people had made Spirit Buggy, in all its richness, their own experience. Added to it. Strengthened it. I saw people excited about competition, excited about challenging themselves. I saw people learning, growing. I saw people embracing tolerance, humor. I found myself becoming close friends with Spirit Buggy people that I never went to school with. I found myself becoming close friends with people who never even went to CMU, but were friends with Spirit Buggy people. In a way I never imagined, my life became infinitely richer. It’s because of all of this – not the victories – that I say with confidence that Spirit Buggy has made the world a better place.
So what happened in ’94 on Raceday? It was a tough year for Spirit, not winning men’s or women’s. In ’95, the men came in second, but the women won setting the record – 2.33.03 – a record that lasted 18 years, the longest running women’s record in Sweepstakes history.
In ’96, the women won again and the men again came in second. But their second place finish was, in my opinion, the second greatest Spirit Buggy achievement of all time (second only to the ’88 men’s record). In ‘96, the men’s A team buggy spun out in the Chute and did not complete the race. Our B team placed a respectable fifth in qualifiers, but was several seconds off of the first-day leader.
All the men’s team hopes were now placed on the B team’s finals performance. The entire team rallied around them. By driving a perfect line, pushing perfect hills, and getting a bit of luck, the B team knew they could challenge for victory. And when they raced the second day, they did race perfectly…
And then a bit of luck came their way. One team was disqualified. Another performed poorly…
Soon, all of the racing was done except for the last heat of the finals. Spirit’s B team sat on top of the leader’s board. Spirit B was in first place!
The crowd was electrified. Spirit’s B team had beaten every team in Sweepstakes, except, of course, the two about to race in the last heat. Among them, only one could challenge Spirit. It would come down to Spirit B vs. PiKA A.
As PiKA started to bring their buggy to the start line, I was on the top of Hill One surrounded by PiKA alumni and brothers. I saw them stare at a dark potential future: the very real possibility that they could lose to Spirit B. They were all visibly scared. It was awesome!
Unfortunately, PiKA did win that day. But only after Spirit B had raced a stunning race, pushed PiKA to their limit, and accomplished an unprecedented feat for a B team in coming in second.
In ’97 and ’98 Spirit men’s won yet again as did Spirit’s women in ’97 and ’99. And now Spirit Buggy continues full of new people and new challenges. And, as I finish this history, I wonder what history they will write.