Op-Ed : Design Comp

The design competition chair, Melissa Lee sent an e-mail to the chairman’s list today listing the buggies that had been entered into design comp.  The extremely short list is:

  • Fringe- New Buggy, Bristol
  • KDR-Polaris
  • SigEp-Barracuda
  • CIA- Firebird
  • SAE- Rubicon, Limo

As a fan of the idea of design comp, this bothers me.  We’re estimating that there will be about 36 different buggies on the course this raceday.  All of them are eligible to be entered in design comp.  The fact that only 7 have been so far suggests that design comp is an ailing if not comatose competition.  Even more damning is the fact that most of the fastest orgs in the race are abstaining (PiKA, SDC, Spirit, SigNu).  The result is a competition that is less rewarding than it could be for everyone.  The teams that don’t participate are missing out on getting recognition for their superb efforts, and those that do can’t ignore that it is a somewhat hollow victory.

So what’s to be done?  It seems we can either ditch the competition entirely or have a conversation about why nobody likes it anymore and work on creating a competition that means something.

Reasons I’ve heard to not enter design comp:

  • Secrecy – “Nobody is looking inside our buggies!”  I get secrecy.  It’s one of the more alluring parts of buggy culture.  It has real strategic purpose.  Orgs and their mechanics put a hell of a lot of work into these buggies to get ahead, and nobody should have to give that up.  But come on, really?  Maybe it takes a post-college perspective, but I’m going to say that there are very few professors or professional engineers who have any interest in spending half their day collecting information about the internals of a buggy so that they can sell it on the black market.
  • Subjective contests are worthless, this is a race – Again, I get the concept of the argument, but I think it overstates things.  Races are fundamentally interesting because the biggest peice of crap buggy with five fat guys pushing wins the trophy if they can somehow get to the line the fastest.  Objective outcomes leave no room for excuses or complaints, and that’s satisfying.  But there are tons of subjective awards in sports that people care about.  Think about the Heisman, the Cy Young award, or the Hart Trophy.  Are they meaningless just because they’re subjective?  Unless people are saying that the design comp trophies are given out randomly, subjectivity is not inherently a fatal flaw.
  • Waste of Time – “There’s too much to do before raceday, and the last thing I need to be doing is washing my dress shirt.”  This sounds more like an excuse to me than a real reason not to participate.  Sure you’re busy, but you go to CMU, you’re always busy, stop whining.  I gave my fair share of those presentations and I’ll promise you I didn’t spend weeks putting together my note cards.  You built the buggy, so long as you were thinking something when you designed it, you’ll have something to say.  If you don’t have time to wash your shirt, go in with your epoxy stained one.  They’re engineers, they’d rather be wearing something with epoxy stains.
  • Fringe always wins anyway – It’s true that Fringe has won for enough years in a row that in the 4 year memory of college teams it’s been forever.  But then you could also say that PiKA always wins the race.  That doesn’t mean we stop racing.  The logic is circular, if a strong team is on a streak and the competition withdraws, of course the streak will continue.  Hell, there’s a 14% chance that Fringe will win this year if they draw the winner from a hat.  That’s a reason to beat them, not quit.  Fringe is absolutely beatable, the question is just whether your buggy is the one that can knock them off the top of the podium.

Reasons I think we shouldn’t let design comp die:

  • It’s another thing to win – I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but not too many orgs get to drink out of the Constentino and CPT cups (4 in the past 15 years).  More things to compete on gives more orgs a chance to be rewarded for their efforts.  That keeps teams motivated and healthy and that’s good for buggy.  Competition is fun, why not have a bit more of it.
  • Being good at engineering doesn’t make you athletic – In fact, if you look around, the opposite may be true.  But that’s ok, whats wrong with acknowledging excellence in one dimension without the other?  Again, buggy is unique and awesome because it’s the combination of the engineering and athleticism (and driving!), but that’s why the design comp trophies are smaller.  They recognize the best effort in one aspect of the competition.
  • Tradition – I’d love to hear from alumni on this point, but the design competition has existed since 1921.  Participation has been much broader in the past and if I remember correctly was mandatory for some period of time.  Who are we to let this part of the buggy tradition die, and I wonder what is so different now that we would want to.  Surely the guys in the 50’s had secrets, worried about subjective decisions, and were busy too.
  • It’s good advice – There’s only one opportunity per year to get some outside feedback from real professionals about what you’ve been up to in that garage.  These are guys that work for car companies, do research in engineering, and even in some cases participated in buggy back in their day.  They’re interested enough to travel to Pittsburgh and check things out, and most of our teams can’t be bothered to go in there and show them a buggy.  We have as a sport developed some really impressive expertise, but it’s a bit on the arrogant side to say that professional engineers couldn’t give you some interesting feedback.

I want to point out, I’m not trying to make anyone participate in something they don’t like.  Which is good because I don’t have any power or influence to do so.  I just think that buggy is missing out on something that used to be cool and could add a lot more to carnival that it does right now.  There’s no reason buggy can’t talk about it, decide why it sucks, and change things to make it better.

Think you’ve got better arguments pro or con?  Have an idea to fix it all?  Take it to the forum