The anatomy of Sweepstakes

The Buggy

It doesn’t happen anywhere else in the nation. It defines its own college subculture — one of early morning practices, late-night build sessions, and a staggering amount of duct tape. It’s Buggy, and it’s what makes Carnegie Mellon even more unique (and perhaps absurd) than it already is.

So what are those little cars made of? Are they directed by remote control? Is there actually a real person inside? Why do people do it?

Composite materials. No. Yes, they’re called drivers, and they are extraordinarily petite members of the Carnegie Mellon community. Because there is nothing else like it — anywhere.

In short, Sweepstakes — Buggy’s official name — is a competition among independent student organizations, fraternities, and one sorority in which teams of mechanics race small, low-to-the-ground vehicles with hopes of navigating the course the fastest. To boot, everyone participating in Buggy in any way must be a current student of Carnegie Mellon.

While it is not easy to define Buggy, and especially challenging to explain why people do it, a solid start is to explain what a buggy is made of. The general parts of a buggy, which all teams have despite their overall level of competitiveness, are an outer shell, a steering system, a windshield, a pushbar, a set of wheels, and a driver.

A buggy’s shell is made of composites. These materials are extremely light, have a high strength-to-weight ratio, and are cutting-edge in the world of the engineering industry. Drivers enter the buggy through a hatch opening in the shell — located either at the front or on top of the buggy — or the entire shell is removed for entry. Drivers maintain visibility through a windshield made from polycarbonates such as Lexan, a common brand used by buggy mechanics across various organizations.

Buggies are built to maneuver the course in different ways, although there are several characteristics which are necessarily employed by all groups. Steering systems, which are controlled by the driver as she or he stretches her or his arms forward while lying stomach-down, are designed individually for each buggy, and are made to allow a driver to easily navigate the twists, turns, and potholes of the course. An aluminum pushbar, which pushers hold on to on their respective hills, extends upward from the rear of the buggy. (See course design description at right.) All buggies must have at least three wheels, which are commonly organized into either reverse or standard trike positions. The former features two front wheels and one in the rear, and the latter relies on one wheel in front of the driver’s face and two balancing the buggy in back.

Finally, the human touch: the driver. While all teams look for different qualities in their drivers, such as overall size, driving ability, or dedication to the idea of Buggy as a whole, it is agreed that without drivers, Buggy would not exist. The intricacies of the mechanics and the strategies developed by the pushers are only applicable when the driver is strapped inside the buggy — helmet, goggles, and all.

The Course

The Buggy course. It’s long, full of complex curves, and anything but simple to navigate. This 4412-foot-long course is divided into five sections plus a sixth freeroll portion, and these different areas are manned by various members of a push team. The five sections other than the freeroll are officially referred to as Hills 1 through 5, and are uphill or flat regions of the course in which a single member of the organization’s push team provides the buggy with speed and power.

  1. Hill 1: Hill 1 is the first leg of the course. A team’s Hill 1 pusher is generally its physically strongest member.
  2. Hill 2: The Hill 2 pusher picks up the shove from the Hill 1 pusher and pushes the buggy over the crest of the hill on Tech Street. The buggy begins its freeroll descent down Schenley Drive toward Phipps Conservatory.
  3. Freeroll: The freeroll portion of the course is the only part of the race in which the driver is not pushed by a pusher. This 2500-foot-long portion of the course drops in elevation, allowing the driver to pick up speed before heading into the most technical part of the course.
  4. The Chute: The Chute, also known as the Curve, is recognized as the most technically challenging leg of the course and is where the road curves around the bottom of Flagstaff Hill.
  5. Hill 3: Hill 3 is where the third pusher picks up the buggy as it rolls out of the Chute.
  6. Hill 4: Hill 4 consists of a portion of Frew Street behind Baker Hall, and is long, straight, and slightly steep.
  7. Hill 5: Hill 5 is the longest pusher section on the course, and ends at the finish line. It is flat, so a Hill 5 pusher is generally a team’s fastest.

So how do drivers know how to maneuver these sections of the sprawling course? As any buggy mechanic, pusher, or driver will tell you, no two teams’ “lines” (planned paths for the course) are the same. Some teams instruct their drivers to traverse the course conservatively, not making any sudden or sharp changes in direction or attempting any risky movements. Others are more daring, insisting that their line be one of great movement and precise maneuvering into the Chute.

Is there a difference? As the discrepancy between highly successful and less successful teams is often great, there must be. The varying organizations can agree, however, on one thing: To successfully maneuver the Buggy course, the only one in the world, it takes a great driver, a motivated push team, and a highly innovative team of mechanics. Year after year, that seems to be the recipe for success.