Monday, June 23

Story Number One

One Person’s History of Spirit Buggy
(originally written 1999, edited for distribution outside Spirit 2008)
M.L. Wagner
Spirit Buggy Chair ‘85, ’86, ’87

Chapter One: 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, they demanded that Spirit participate in Spring Carnival. This included doing both Booth and Buggy.

At the time, this 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.

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 the dual Chairs of Spirit Buggy.

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 and hastily put together push teams, 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. From that Raceday forward, Spirit’s women’s push teams have challenged and inspired the rest of the team.

Chapter Two: 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 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 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 to he became a Spirit Buggy mechanic. Two years later he led Spirit Buggy to the men’s record. This record stood until 2008 – 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 everyday 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.

Finally Raceday came again. 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. I’m still uncomfortable revealing the details outside of Spirit, but to this day, it’s a complete mystery how we escaped disqualification 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 155 seconds). Our men repeated their previous day’s efforts and placed fourth.

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 organizations that had never thought much if anything about Spirit now acknowledged 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 what we decided was grudging respect.

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 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, that is the mother of all subsequent Spirit buggies. 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, in that era 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 (back then open containers of alcohol were aloud on campus), 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 Three: Ascendance

The remainder of this account is quite different from that above since it’s from the perspective of an alumnus, 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, a random 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 (for the era) two wheeled buggy 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 – was finally broken 20 years later. It was 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. In what was truly one of the most amazing athletic performances 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 is still used today. In 1997, just before Carnival, Karl lost his fight against cancer. He is missed.

In those years, the Spirit women 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 Four: 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, the Night of Red Bull, and a host of others. 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 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 with Spirit, not winning men’s or women’s. In ’95, the men came in second, but the women won setting a new record – 2.33.03.

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 record). That year, 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 leader. All the men’s team hopes were now placed on the B team and 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 and another performed poorly. Then, shocking to the crowd, as the last heat of the finals approached, Spirit’s B team was in first place. They had beaten all other team’s A teams, but one. The one A team that remained was Spirit’s rival, PiKA, who raced in the final heat. Unfortunately for Spirit, PiKA did win that day. But only after Spirit B had raced a stunning race and pushed them to the limit.

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.

Friday, May 16

We have started a Team History Spreadsheet. You can view it here. Let me know if you would like to contribute by sending an email to

Thursday, May 15

Night of 1000 Stories (a buggy farce)

Cast: Hundreds, including: Matt, Tom, Kate, Pete, Jeanine, Will, X, Ray, Mike, K-K-Ken and of course, Kate's Parents

Time: Fall? in the mid 90s
Place: metropolitan university campus

Props: 1 magnum Sake, 1 or more cases of beer, 1 bottle Absolut vodka (frozen), lit cigarette, $5 bill, rumpled bed, set of car keys.

Tracking down all Spirit Buggy teams.

It would be nice to have a record of all of our teams, or at least try to get as much information as possible. Just trying out this blog-thing so bear with me/us though.

Tuesday, March 25

Get Involved

Are you an alum of Spirit Buggy? Do you want to help contribute to this site? Send me an email at