Buggy: Life on the edge

The most common question any Fringe member gets asked has to be: “What does Fringe do?” The answer is simple: Since 1969, Fringe has been doing whatever it wants. They sell concessions at the McConomy movies; they have water-balloon fights; they throw parties; they build a booth every year; and they’re always at the activities fair. But what Fringe does most seriously is Buggy, and their buggies are some of the fastest and best-looking Carnegie Mellon has to offer. Fringe buggies have taken first place in the annual design competition for seven years in a row and have earned the organization a considerable collection of top-five and first-place finishes.

Though race day is, of course, the climax of the Buggy season, it only happens because 35 pushers, 25 mechanics, and four tiny drivers burn the midnight oil all year. To the untrained observer, it may seem like Buggy just happens. A bunch of guys hunt around at the beginning of the year for curiously tiny women, and in April, they shove them into composite canisters and send them barreling down hills. And while that’s all true, a closer look into Fringe buggy shows that the journey from September to April is in fact a long, tedious, exciting, and sometimes very rainy experience.

“You get to hassle everyone to wake up.”

Buggy happens often and early. On the weekends, practices start around 5 and go to about 9 — in the morning. Though the early alarm ring makes most of Fringe grimace, at least one person is smiling. “When you’re in control, you get to hassle everyone to wake up,” said Fringe Buggy chairman and senior mechanical engineering major Dave Bertucci. Fringe also practices on weekdays from midnight to 2 am, rain or shine. Well, never shine — because it’s midnight — but sometimes rain.

So what’s with the buggy names: Brazen, Blackjack, Blizzard, Bantam? Fringe looks for good two-syllable names that start with the letter B — it’s tradition. “We just throw names in a pot and talk about a cool name,” said Fringe head mechanic and junior mechanical engineering major John Thornton.

“It has a rear-wheel fairing!”

Mechanics are an odd group, always whispering to another, rummaging through tools, walking the course, staring critically at this or that. Fringe mechanics are involved with making buggies from their first few days with the organization. “Right when I joined, they gave me a project. They trusted me,” said first-year electrical and computer engineering major Mark Ritterhof. It makes sense that Fringe works their mechanics so hard when you figure that they build a new buggy each year.

Fringe takes pride in everything that they do. From the first conception to the final product, the whole team contributes to each new buggy. “We don’t contract out parts of our buggies. We build it all ourselves,” said Bertucci. Designing a buggy is a year-long experience, but the plans go down on paper in the span of a week at the end of fall semester. Two months after that, a buggy is born.

Mechanics take care of things that even people who are heavily involved with Buggy would take for granted. Windshields, pushbars, hatches — Fringe takes every piece into account when building a new buggy. According to one mechanic, Fringe’s newest buggy, Bantam, has all the bells and whistles. Bertucci said, “It even has a rear-wheel fairing!”

But Fringe mechanics aren’t a pack of do-gooders either. Just like every other Buggy organization, they have their share of secrets — something about compounds and glues and exotic materials and whatnot. They want to win as much as the next guy, and they’re not afraid to do what it takes to win. “This is Buggy, not ethics,” mechanic and first-year computer science major Andrew Hundt said. Though mechanics from opposing teams smile and nod to each other, there are enough rumors and accusations thrown back and forth to make Regina George blush. And why shouldn’t they take Buggy so seriously? According to Thornton, Buggy is more work than all of his classes combined.

Thornton, who will ultimately be responsible for choosing the next head mechanic, said, “If you work long enough, you think ‘This guy’s on the ball. He can take the organization to the next step.’ ”

“The inside of the buggy is gross.”

“She was short. That’s most of it. We basically try to find cool, short people,” said Thornton about first-year driver Jessica Thurston. At 5’ 1½”, Thurston is Fringe’s tallest driver by far. The other three drivers all measure in at under five feet. And you had better believe that drivers know their height (or lack thereof) puts them in great demand. “Drivers know their coveted position. I don’t think Thurston has put on her own helmet all year,” Bertucci said.

How do you become a driver? “They asked me my number and if I was free for dinner,” explained first-year driver Janice Weinberg. “For two weeks I was friends with them until they told me I had to wake up at 5 am. Actually they didn’t even tell me. Torrie, an older driver, told me.”

“My shirt is freaking soaked. The inside of the buggy is gross,” said head driver Lindsey Bernier, a sophomore materials engineering major, after one very rough and very wet run of the course. Bernier drives Fringe’s latest buggy, Bantam. Despite occasional discomfort, Bernier actually loves the thrill of the race. “I get a rush from being in the buggy,” she said. “I like things like rollercoasters and thrill rides and stuff and being in the buggy is kind of similar. The first few times I went down it was a little scary, but once you get the hang of it, it’s like a thrill ride.”

Statements like these from drivers make mechanics’ mouths water. Thornton admits he is jealous of the tiny women who get to drive his buggies. This summer, Thornton and the other mechanics are thinking about making a man-size buggy and driving their creations for the very first time. Maybe they can even get the drivers to push them.

It isn’t all fun and games and thrill rides for Bernier, however. She has been under a lot of pressure all year to score Fringe a winning time on race day. “There are definitely expectations for how fast the buggy is going to be,” Bernier said. “I want the buggy to have an awesome roll on race day, which is on me. I am definitely nervous since all the alumni will be there and all the mechanics’ hard work all year comes down to just one or two rolls.”

“The drivers keep the mechanics on their toes and make sure that they are doing their jobs,” said Bernier on communication between drivers and the rest of team. “It’s our safety on the line. If we hear something while we’re in the buggy that doesn’t sound right, we let them know.”

“We all have a lot of team pride and are very close. The drivers have a lot of spirit and try to keep everyone positive and motivated.”

“We can take a little rain.”

Insignificant happenings like thunderstorms don’t keep Fringe off the course. Two weeks before race day, with only a handful of practices left, Fringe decided to brave Mother Nature and push their buggies despite the rain. In the thunder and lightning and pouring rain, only Fringe came out to practice. According to Thornton, “The more practice we get the better we’ll be. The buggies can take a little rain. We can take a little rain. It’s worth it.”

But he does have to push it, which is an art all to itself. While the mechanics are fidgeting, taping, checking harnesses, and fixing helmets, the pushers are doing their ritual warm-up dances. There’s a little prancing around, stretching, hopping up and down, and running up and down the sidewalk.

Pushers are a mixed group pulled from all over campus. Some are pulled from the track team, some are mechanics, others are friends or friends of friends. For pushers, Buggy is lot of waiting and a little bit of very intense action.

“Haven’t you ever been to a track meet?” asked first-year pusher and economics major Dan Aduna. That seems to sum it up pretty well.

First-year pusher and design major Grant Cobb didn’t seem to mind the rain. After pushing Blizzard through a mild storm, he scored his best time on the final straightaway of the course. Apparently, it decreases the friction.

Even for pushers, who will never see the inside of the buggies and could probably care less how they are made, Buggy is a secretive enterprise. When Cobb went to speak with his friend from another team during one practice, the girl he was speaking with was accused only half-jokingly of “fraternizing with the enemy” by her own team.

“You have to understand the Buggy culture.”

Buggy is weird — cramming into a tube at 4 am, protecting secrets more valuable than gold, dedicating your entire morning (or night, depending on how you look at it) to pushing a buggy 50 feet a single time. But as Thornton said, “You have to understand the Buggy culture.” And what exactly is this Buggy culture? “It’s waking up early, staying up all night instead of going to parties — all the weird things you never think you’re going to do.”

“You have to love it for what it is. It’s just a weird thing that you can only do in one place in the world.”

Buggy is something that riles people up at a school where it is almost impossible to pry people out of their calculus books. It brings out more people and pride than any sports team at Carnegie Mellon. And why? Probably because it’s really weird. Just like us.