The Davidson College Freshmen Cake Race is a tradition that has endured by embracing change.
Freshmen year is a nervous and scary experience for almost every Davidson student. For the incoming class of ‘34 the experience was made even more grueling by a mandatory 1.7 mile race. This race, which has been held every year since, (except during WWII and 1972) has become a trademark of Davidson College and its incoming freshmen; it is the Cake Race (On your mark…get set…go for Cake). Although the race has been an annual event ever since, it has gone through some alterations in order to keep up with the changing face of Davidson College.
The race was established by Davidson track Coach Heath “Pete” Whittle; his goal was to uncover hidden talent in the incoming freshmen class and ask them to come out for the track team (Conn). Fortunately, Coach Whittle knew that forcing the freshmen class to run almost two-miles could not be done without an incentive, and that is where the “cake” in Cake Race comes in. Currently, cakes are the only reward waiting for the winners at the end of the race, but when the tradition first began, items such as “haircuts, picture shows, and various other remunerations offered by the different industrial and economic organizations in Davidson” were given out as well (Morrow Comes in First in Freshmen Cake Race). (Mayer)
There are many things that have been altered about the Cake Race since its start in 1930. In the beginning, the course was run out Concord Road, down Grey Road, and up to the gym across the former college golf course. Over the years both the route and length of the race shifted. (Morrow Comes in First in Freshmen Cake Race), (Skinner). The Cake Race of today includes female contestants; whereas, in 1930 Davidson College was still all-male.
It was in 1973 that females first took part in the race as equal competitors; however, the women had slower running times and ended up not receiving any cakes when the race ended. The organizers of the race decided to have the men and women compete in races that were separated in time by a few minutes. A certain number of cakes are set aside for the winners of both races based on the percentage of participants there are for each sex (Mayer). Participation today is now voluntary; whereas, in the beginning “The race was mandatory unless you were in the infirmary or had only one leg” (“On your mark…”). Despite the changes, the race still brings out many participants and spectators every year.
One mainstay of the Cake Race is the social pressure to perform, whether one is representing his hall, her sports team, or a fraternity or eating house. Sterling Martin, Jr. of the class of ’63 remembers, “Years ago, when the fraternities were really strong, the competition among the halls carried over into the fraternities as well. There were reports of fraternity brothers’ cars waiting at the bottom of the hill on Grey Road, of shortcuts through the woods, and that sort of thing. I never saw any cheating, but I’m sure it happened” (Mayer).
Martin was the winner of the Cake Race in 1959 and it led to his discovery as a hidden track talent. Martin went on to make the All-Southern Conference cross country team, and became the track coach at Davidson in 1970. One might say that Sterling would have lived a very different life if his track talent had not been discovered at the Cake Race that September day in ’59. (Mayer)
Through the many years that the cake race has been held, different records have been set. Pete R. Ashcradt ’57 held a record of 8:34.5 for twenty-three years until R. Douglass Horn ’79 achieved 7:33. Currently, the record is held by John S. Davis ’81 who ran the race in 8:25 (“On your mark…”). The only year that the race was not held was in 1972 when the administration came to the decision that the tradition was too “Joe collegish.” The upperclassmen at Davidson at the time went into uproar, upset that the incoming freshmen didn’t have to be tortured like they were (“On your mark…”). The next year the Cake Race was back with the addition of women to the competition.
From 1997-2006, Bobby Vagt, the President of Davidson College, inspired his students by running the race while wearing the Wildcat mascot head.
The Cake Race continues to be a huge success and enjoyed by both the students of Davidson and the members of the Davidson community. The alterations made to the race have mantained its popularity, with the same goal of providing friendly competition with the intent of bringing a new class closer together.
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Author: Patricia Duffy and Tammy Ivins
Date: October 2003
Cite as: Duffy, Patricia and Tammy Ivins. “Cake Race” Davidson Encyclopedia October