Way back in my day, the zoo were big into design. We took pride in it. Brought home a bunch of hardware as a result. Much labor, much love. Probably not far from how fringe feels today. It was a big part of buggy for us.
Back then, BETA and later TX were also big on design. BETA had ruled design for a few years in the late 70s and early 80s. TX put on a good effort as well. PKA never entered. TX had a good looking design buggy and a very fast race buggy but they were not the same buggy. We were in the same boat. We did not enter our fastest buggies because they were not the best looking. Esp was entered for several years while Lemur, clearly a revolutionaly design, was not. Eventually we had yama bachi and later the pope and those were also pretty but not fast buggies. Before 1986 or 87, only the design-entered buggy had to go to the gym, the rest stayed at home and received pre-race love. Design was mandated. PKA would drag over their 'd' buggy but refuse to present. Mandating design is a bad idea. we have been there and done that.
The contest was, at the time, a combination of a good design, a beauty pagent and a lottery. The process was flawed. While 3/4 of the time, a well designed buggy won, more than once we had the case where a buggy that no one who was actively racing would consider a 'good design' won the thing a few times. How do I know they were not good designs? 2 reasons:were they good designs, they would have either been fast enough to make the top 20, or we they good designs, others might have copied all or some of their features in following years, neither was the case).
Thus, we saw 4 wheeled buggies (including ours) winning design after the 4 wheeled era had past. We had 3 wheeled buggies the size of a house winning over much better designs from TX or SN or BETA or even SDC and Fringe buggies of that era. When that happened, it was hard to take design seriously. Many judges were good, some were flat out silly in terms of the questions they asked.
I do not know when the zoo stopped caring about design enough to stop entering. I know they were entering into the 90s. I had already given up on design after my last year as an undergrad, 87. To me, the time and effort to tart up a buggy was not worth the somewhat suspect chances of a fair judging. Given when it was happening (the day before the race), I felt I had put those man hours of work, early weekend wakeup calls, and hours of practice at risk by stretching our resources thinner to enter a flawed competition.
The lack of quality judging was what killed it for me. Focusing on making that better would be a good thing. Might inspire more teams to enter.
My idea for improving design: hold it friday afternoon, after prelims. The judges would all be invited to watch the prelims. This, more than anything else would improve the odds of having a rational outcome of the contest. I can tell you my buggy is fast, or I can show you my design working in the context of the race it was designed for. Show followed by Tell is the best combo. If my hatch needs a big piece of duct tape, the judge will see it. If my entrant has stability issues in the chute, those will be hard to miss. If my design is not rolling 'a' team for at least one gender, that should matter as well (in a bad way). If it rolls 9+ windows, that is some positive design proof.
If moved to fridays, It would be very natural for the crowd to go from the race course to the gym. The teams making the finals could be allowed to present first (use reverse order from the prelims to establish the presentation order) to get them as much time as possible to get ready for the next day. The rest of the buggies could just as easily sit in the gym on friday as thursday. If kept to a short duration, it would not get in the way of any other carnival events and might be a great chance for some folks who are occupied during the prelims (judges, announcers...) to interact with the people they had to ignore earlier in the day. And, we could serve beer (to BAA members of age). The peoples choice award could be nice fundraiser for the buggy alumni association. Also, by moving it to Friday, you would have more alumni and parents there. That increased crowd would naturally elevate design's importance.
friday post prelim design + judges at prelims + beer at desig + BAA cookout as part of desig = good