A Most Delicious Tradition
Nearly ninety years ago Davidson’s Track Coach Heath Whittle had a dilemma. He needed a way to identify prospective runners for his Track and Field team.
Before the days of the internet and YouTube videos of impressive sports achievements, Whittle didn’t exactly have the means to find talented runners. So, he came up with a plan. He devised a mandatory race for all first-year students.
There would be no trophies, no medals. Instead, Whittle convinced several members of the local Davidson community to bake cakes for the winners. Clearly his idea worked. Based on available historical records, the race has been run every year but one since 1930. In 1972, the administration cancelled the race, but upperclassmen pleaded for its return the following year – and it did.
In recent years, an interesting camaraderie and rivalry has been created among the first-year students on various athletic teams. There are tutus and Speedos, as well as a healthy crowd on hand to cheer on the students. The crowd includes fellow students and teammates as well as members of the community and college faculty and staff.
These days the cake race is voluntary, but the tradition continues. Early Wednesday afternoon cars started pulling up in front of Baker sports complex, and members of the community started off-loading cakes. Many were homemade, others were store-bought. The college’s dining facility’s own “The Wildcat Bakeshop” made several spectacular cakes to add to the bounty. This year’s race may set a record in that category – roughly 175 cakes were donated.
The race was run in two heats, men starting out first. The division was established to ensure a more equitable distribution of cakes. As runners finished, they were handed a card. The race is less about the finishing time, and more about the number of the card. That number determined the priority for cake selection.
This year, a new “tradition” emerged. Chris Clunie ’06 – the college’s new Athletic Director – donned his running shoes and challenged other “first year” members of the staff to join him. It’s not clear how many members of the staff took him up on the challenge, but Clunie didn’t hold back. He crossed the finish line with a big smile and outstretched arms as though he was finishing the Boston Marathon. He finished 55th, but returned the card so that he wouldn’t be taking a cake away from a student.
As he handed his card back, Clunie said “I got one in 2002, and that’s the only cake I need. . . However, if somebody who did get a cake wants to share a piece – that would be the Wildcat Way. Go ‘Cats!”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, then Davidson College president Bobby Vagt participated in the race – often wearing the Wildcat mascot head. Clunie didn’t wear the mascot head, but he also pointed out that he didn’t wear a Speedo either.
Oh, and in case you were wondering – this year’s winners were: Rachel Shapiro from Atlantic Beach, Fla. and Cole Mitchell from Durham. Well, it might be said that the winners also included everybody involved in this year’s Cake Race: from the runners, to the bakers, and the spectators who enjoyed watching the much anticipated race and cake selection process.
If you want to see the tradition in person, you will have to wait until next year. The race is traditionally scheduled for the Wednesday of the first week of class.