Celebrating Black History Month – The Rise of SPIRIT Buggy

In honor of Black History Month and as part of our Buggy100 efforts, today we want to shine a spotlight one of the greatest organizations in Buggy history, celebrating their 50th anniversary on CMU’s campus and 35th anniversary in Buggy – SPIRIT Racing Systems.

The organization known in Buggy circles as “Spirit” was initially formed at CMU in 1970 as the “Black Student Organization.”  But the organization changed its name to SPIRIT shortly thereafter, in an effort to better reflect its constituents at the time and to not limit membership to a specific race.  According to the SPIRIT Constitution, the mission of SPIRIT is “to serve as a haven for Black students and their allies within the Carnegie Mellon community, to serve as a two-way platform for the SPIRIT constituency and Carnegie Mellon community, and to champion the issues and awareness of the Black community and all its intersections.”

By the time 1985 rolled around, SPIRIT decided, with the support of the CMU administration, to expand their involvement in campus activities, and one of those new activities that they decided to participate in was Buggy.  Led by Co-Chairmen Robert Bowie and Matt Wagner, SPIRIT Buggy (which would later be renamed to SPIRIT Racing Systems) set out to start a Buggy team.  With guidance from former Fringe member Steve Ng and a lot of watching and learning, Matt Wagner set out a three year plan for the organization, called “Participate, Compete, Win.”  This was an attempt to Participate in year 1, Compete in year 2, and Win in year 3.  It was an ambitious plan – No team since the beginning of Buggy had won within its first 3 years of competing.

Step one in the plan was Participation.  This seemed simple – Get a buggy, get some team members, and find yourself at Raceday.  But with the early mornings, late nights, and dedication required from both team members (pushers, mechanics, drivers) and support staff (sweepers, flaggers, barricaders, etc.), and the cost involved with the sport, it’s not always so easy.  But SPIRIT was dedicated, and so they reached out and obtained a buggy named Pegasus from the fraternity Zeta Beta Tau.  They got a few mechanics, found a driver, assembled strong Men’s and Women’s push teams, and got themselves qualified for Raceday.  And on Friday, April 19, 1985, SPIRIT officially completed Step 1 of the plan – Participate in buggy.

SPIRIT obtained the buggy Pegasus (white, center-frame) from Zeta Beta Tau, but the buggy had some issues and in the Men’s heats, the front hatch would pop up early in the freeroll, slowing the buggy down to a crawl (from the BAA Gallery, uploaded by Carl Nott)

Of course, Raceday 1985 had some ups and downs.  The inexperience of the mechanics led to some issues with the buggy on Raceday.  It didn’t help that the buggy, Pegasus, was itself a slow buggy.  But to make matters worse, on Raceday, the hatch of the Buggy popped up early in the freeroll of the Men’s heats and acted as an air brake, slowing the Buggy down and resulting in a final time of 3:02.26, good for 2nd to last.  The mechanics quickly adapted and duct taped the hatch down for the Women’s races, and the Women’s team was able to finish 7th, just missing out on the Finals.

In 1986, SPIRIT moved on to Step 2 of the plan, Compete.  A normal organization will build, at most, one new buggy in a single year, and occasionally certain organizations may build 2.  But the success of just participating in 1985 gave SPIRIT a lot of momentum and the organization found itself with many people who wanted to join the team.  They had enough interest to form 3 Men’s teams and 3 Women’s teams.  So to support all three, SPIRIT ended up building three new buggies for 1986.  The three buggies were named Genesis, Elan, and Sting.  SPIRIT determined that the fastest of the new buggies was Elan, so Elan was assigned to both A team, with Sting rolling for the B teams and Genesis for the C teams.  Overlooked as a new team, the Men’s A team finished with a shocking 4th place finish, earning their first trophy, and the Men’s B team finished with the 6th fastest time of the year, though they were disqualified for failing their drop (braking) test.  The result fell in line with Step 2 of the plan, showing that Spirit could compete.  But the Women’s team went even further.  In just their 2nd year as a Buggy organization, the Spirit Women’s A team pulled off one of the greatest upsets in Buggy history, upsetting the defending Women’s champion, fraternity Pi Kappa Alpha (PiKA), and the Women’s powerhouse Carnegie Involvement Association (CIA) (who won 4 of the first 7 Women’s races) and winning the Women’s race, in a time of 2:38.94 and setting a course record in the process.

SPIRIT Buggy Co-Chairs Matt Wagner and Robert Bowie celebrate their trophies in 1986 (from the BAA Gallery, uploaded by Carl Nott)

The Women’s win in 1986 spurred the team on even further, and now they set out for their final goal: to win the Men’s races as well in Year 3.  SPIRIT built another new buggy, named Quantum Leap, which would compete as the Men’s C team buggy in 1987.  The buggy Sting would be promoted to the A team on both the Men’s and Women’s side.  As the defending champion on the Women’s side, SPIRIT was no longer overlooked, but they needed to prove that they weren’t a one-year wonder.  And they succeeded in proving it.  CIA’s team improved from 1986 to 1987, but they were no match for the women of SPIRIT.  SPIRIT’s team set a course record for the second year in a row, earning their second straight victory in a time of 2:37.34.  But the real proof that SPIRIT was a force to be reckoned with came on the Men’s side.  Buggy predictor Compubookie predicted that SPIRIT would barely sneak in to the Top 5, but in accordance with Matt Wagner’s 3-year plan, the push team and buggy came together to perfection, earning the Men’s victory in a 2:11.35 and completing the Buggy Racing Sweep. 

SPIRIT’s buggy, Sting, went on to win both the Men’s and Women’s races in 1987, fulfilling Matt Wagner’s 3-year plan to “Participate, Compete, Win”, becoming the last buggy to ever win a race using all soap box derby wheels (from the BAA Gallery, uploaded by Sam Swift).

Matt Wagner didn’t spell out a 4-year plan, but if he had, the next step after “Win” would have been “Course Record”.  SPIRIT had already completed that on the Women’s side, but the Men’s course record, set in 1986 by PiKA, was still out there to be had.  SPIRIT went on a quest to find an edge to maintain their status as buggy frontrunner, and they succeeded when they discovered Panaracers.  Wheel technology was the name of the game in Buggy, and most of the top teams had been living off of special Goodyear tires since the early 1980s.  But by the end of the decade, the good rubber was mostly gone, and the newer teams were forced to look elsewhere for success (in fact, Sting would become the last the last buggy to ever win a buggy race on all soap box derby wheels with its 1987 win).  SPIRIT decided to try a new style of tire and went for a pneumatic type made by bicycle tire manufacturer Panaracer.  They strapped the Panaracers on the back of their newest buggy, Quantum Leap (which they then nicknamed “Air QL”), and hoped for the best.

The “best” is the only adjective that can properly describe SPIRIT’s Men’s A team in 1988.  On a cold, snowy day in April, the only known snow delay in the 100 year history of Buggy, SPIRIT’s team all came together and put on one of the greatest displays of dominance in Buggy history.   The super fast push team broke the course record during the Prelims on Friday, and went into Saturday’s Finals as the heavy favorite.  They did not disappoint.  Quantum Leap would become the last buggy to ever win a race using soap box derby wheels after the team ran a near-perfect race, stopping the clock in a mind-boggling 2:06.20, a new Men’s course record.  It was that day that SPIRIT proved that they were a powerhouse in the world of Buggy.  In fact, the 2:06.20 course record would become the longest held record in Buggy history, standing for 20 years until SDC finally broke the record in 2008.

SPIRIT Men’s A Hill 5 pusher Gary Williams pushes Quantum Leap across the finish line in victory, with a course record-setting time of 2:06.20 (from the 1988 Thistle). The record would stand for 20 years, finally being eclipsed in 2008.

As they entered the 1990s, SPIRIT put even more of an emphasis on creating unity for diverse students on campus with their buggy names.  In 1992, they built a new buggy which they named Shaka Zulu, after one of the most influential monarchs of the Zulu Kingdom. From there, they leaned into Swahili for the names of some of their buggies.  In 1995, they built Haraka (Swahili for “Fast”), which was renamed to Kufa Haraka (Swahili for “Quick Death”) in 1997.  In 1996, they built Zulu Machafuko (Swahili for “Zulu Chaos”).  And in 2011, SPIRIT built their first new buggy in 7 years and gave it another Swahili name, Mapambazuko (meaning “Dusk”). 

SPIRIT’s buggies on display at the 2009 Design Competition (from the BAA Gallery, uploaded by Sam Swift), From front to back: Kufu Haraka, Zulu Machafuko, Seraph, and Quantum Leap.

By the start of the 1990s, SPIRIT had clearly established itself as a force to be reckoned with on the Buggy course.  But that frontrunner status also put SPIRIT in a spotlight within the sport that brought out the worst in some of their competitors.  One of SPIRIT’s visions is to “educate the greater campus and Pittsburgh community on the contributions of Black people and Black culture to society”, but the pushback to this stated vision resulted in some of the negative response going beyond friendly rivalry and into the realm of racial prejudice.  The September 11, 1995 Tartan ran an article on the issue of racial tensions on Campus, and reported that:

If there are ever racial tensions on this campus, it manifests itself tenfold during Spring Carnival, mainly because of the annual Sweepstakes Competition [Buggy].

“The only time I am consciously aware of racism is at buggy time”, said Lynn Babyak, a junior biology major.   “The rest of the year’s racial isolation is just written off as a way to preserve culture, but at buggy those lines of separation begin to clash,” she said.

Many students find that the positive aspects of such events fail to outweigh the racial conflicts which they are forced to experience, hence they refuse to participate.

“I was really into buggy until it got to be too much,” said [Rick Gilmore, a senior chemical engineering major].  “For whatever reasons, it was Spirit against the Greeks and vice versa.”

“From Where We Stand: Race Relations at CMU”, The Tartan, September 11, 1995 (Pages L1 & L3)

One stark example of the issue of race in Buggy came shortly after SPIRIT’s rise to the top.  In the same year that SPIRIT would go on to set the Men’s course record, 1988, the fraternity Alpha Tau Omega (ATO) debuted their new buggy, Rebel Yell.  The team was emblematic of the racial animosity that SPIRIT faced on the buggy course.  ATO’s buggy was adorned with a Confederate Flag painted on its top, and the team of pushers donned Confederate Flag bandanas to align with their buggy.  This was met with outrage within the broader CMU community, and was one of a number of factors leading to protests on campus in September 1988 to shine a light on racial insensitivity on campus.  According to the October 18, 1988 Tartan, “[Spirit Executive Vice President Mike] Bowman claimed that ATO’s buggy Rebel Yell was insensitive towards blacks because of its Civil War theme,” and a letter to the editor in the October 25, 1988 Tartan noted that “it was insensitive for the ATO fraternity to wear the confederate flag and fail to realize what the flag represents to the black community.” However, ATO was stubborn in their reluctance to make any changes.  The October 18, 1988 Tartan reports that “according to ATO President Jim Camp, Rebel Yell is so named because ATO brothers drank Rebel Yell whiskey when constructing the buggy,” and a letter to the editor in the April 25, 1988 Tartan argued that the confederate flag was a symbol of the fraternity’s southern pride (it was founded at the Virginia Military Institute in 1865), not racism.  ATO would continue to theme its buggy with confederate iconography until 1990, when ATO reluctantly changed the paint job and wrote in the Buggy Book that “the past few years we have been given a hard time about the Confederate flag which used to be on the Rebel Yell.  While we still feel the flag is an appropriate symbol of our image on campus, others felt differently about it.  In an effort to basically get these people off our backs, we have repainted the Rebel Yell.  We certainly hope that the new scheme is acceptable and we will gladly listen to the same type of constructive criticism that the flag received. Yeah, right.”  However, even as late as 1991, ATO continued to wear Confederate Flag bandanas while pushing, to the outrage of the broader community.

In 1989, ATO debuted their new buggy, Rebel Yell, and its confederate flag design. The design sparked outrage across the CMU community, but represented just one of the more outward prejudices that SPIRIT faced on the Buggy course during its reign of dominance. (Photo from the 1989 Buggy Book).

It is in the face of these adversities that SPIRIT’s dominance stands out as even more impressive.  As an organization devoted to fostering positive interactions, social growth, and community within the greater Carnegie Mellon community, SPIRIT persevered in the Buggy community despite these adversities and soon became a beacon to which other teams aspired.  From 1986 to 1999, the rivalry between the members of SPIRIT and the members of Pi Kappa Alpha became one of the greatest rivalries in the history of the sport.  For 14 straight years, SPIRIT and PiKA would combine to win every single Men’s and Women’s race.  During that period, SPIRIT would win 8 Men’s titles and 7 Women’s titles, including 3 different 3-race win streaks (from 1987-1989 and 1991-1993 on the Men’s side, and 1995-1997 on the Women’s side).  They set the Men’s course record twice (during the Prelims and Finals in 1988), and the Women’s course record 6 times (the 1986 Prelims, the 1987 Finals, the 1989 Prelims, the 1989 Finals, the 1992 Finals, and the 1995 Finals).  And SPIRIT’s organization proved to be exceptionally deep.  In 1995, their Men’s C team set a C team record with a time of 2:13.92, which to this date has only been bested one time, by SDC’s C team in 2010.

One of the most impressive feats that SPIRIT achieved during that period came in 1997.  In that year, the SPIRIT mechanics constructed a quality new buggy in the form of Demani, which won the Design Competition.  On the Women’s side, the SPIRIT Women’s A team also earned the victory with their new buggy, finishing the race in 2:37.78, a full 7 seconds ahead of PiKA A.  And to cap things off, SPIRIT’s Men’s A team, pushing Haraka, earned the Men’s victory in a time of 2:11.88, 2.5 seconds ahead of the 2nd place team, Beta Theta Pi.  This marked the first time in the history of Buggy that the same team has swept the Men’s races, the Women’s races, and the Design Competition, a feat which has only been achieved by one other organization (Fringe, in both 2001 and 2010). 

Spirit accepts the first place Men’s trophy and celebrates their winning time of 2:09.60 from 1998 (from the 1998 Thistle)

And that’s nothing compared to the legacy that SPIRIT has created.  Quantum Leap was a seminal buggy in the history of the sport, spurring countless copycats and imitators.  SPIRIT is widely considered one of the most fun organizations on the course, pumping music and starting dance parties at the bottom of Hill 1 every year.  They are also typically the only organization to repaint their buggies every year, rolling out fan favorite designs on a regular basis.  SPIRIT hasn’t raced at the same level in recent years as they had in their heyday of the 1980s and 1990s, but they maintain that competitive drive, and still often find themselves finishing in the Top 5 in both Men’s and Women’s, earning trophies year after year. 

Always one of the most fun teams out on the course, SPIRIT’s dance parties at the bottom of Hill 1 after the Finals have become legendary and draw a huge crowd of both participants and spectators. 2017 Photo from the BAA Gallery, courtesy of Guillermo Gomez.

So today, we honor SPIRIT Racing Systems.  They faced plenty of adversity over the years, but they achieved their founders’ dreams and enter Raceday 2020 as the 3rd most decorated Buggy organization of all time, with 15 total victories (trailing just PiKA’s 37 and SDC’s 22).  We can’t wait to see what the next 50 years have in store.

9 thoughts on “Celebrating Black History Month – The Rise of SPIRIT Buggy”

  • “The mechanics quickly adapted and duct taped the hatch down for the Women’s races.” Were Women’s races run after the mens races in the 80’s?

    • Not quite. In those days, the Women’s races were only a 1 day event, so they were held on Saturday (before the Men’s finals). However, the Men’s races were the Prelims/Finals structure we have today. So the initial problem with the hatch was during the Men’s races on Friday. SPIRIT fixed the issue for their Women’s race on Saturday.

  • I had a front row seat to the early days in this amazing story. Their 4th place finish in 86 was shocking as they had shown no speed at all during practice yet rolled very well on race day (far quicker than during practice) . Wheels being the key to speed, and our truck being parked next to theirs, it did not take long to detect what was up . The culprit: they were rolling solid red derby wheels that had been “juiced” well beyond the bounds of sanity. They were visibly mushroomed well beyond the typical shape. they had find some old derby magic and it paid off huge. Epic stuff. In later years, that level of juice proved to be imprudent. they moved on to pneumatic tires not long after that so the spirit juiced derby era was only a few years. Juiced pneuamatics? that is not my story to tell.

    • Matthew Wagner says:

      We tried juiced air tires in freerolls once. Wrecked the buggy. No grip. Done after my day, so I don’t know the details.

    • Matthew Wagner says:

      Actually, never really had problems juicing derbies. Went with air tires mainly because of weight. We were also slowly running out of good derbies. Prepped our best ones for raceday, but they were completely trashed after.

      • Running out of good derby tires in the early 80s is what inspired the zoo to reach out to Goodyear. Running out of the Epic Goodyear stuff is what led us to develop Urethane tires.

  • Dave Conley says:

    A challenge to Spirit Alumni….that I think everyone would like to see realized…can you get that ’88 pushteam together for an Alumni heat this year? Best I’ve ever seen, record stood for 20 years!

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