Yep, it’s that time of the week again - time for a rambling history of another homecoming tradition. This one, the oldest of the three, is probably the most controversial throughout its history, but, ultimately, I believe it has done the most good. Why, you ask? The answer is varied, from baked goods to track stars and from pure Tech spirit to a feeling of belonging. This is the story of the Freshman Cake Race.
I’ll be the first to admit I filled out the bill of my RAT cap wrong. Upside down, to be exact. The first time I tuned in to watch my one of my childhood heroes, Iman Shumpert, don the white and gold, playing for “those bees,” I couldn’t have told you what Georgia Tech was. It’s easy to make fun of outsiders for referring to the Institute with one of the countless misnomers appended to the school on North Avenue, but that was also me - not realizing the Georgia Institute of Technology was the same thing as the Georgia Tech I saw on ESPN was a phase that lasted longer than I’d personally care to admit. But that’s thing about Tech, in general - we all come to it in different ways, at different times in our lives, and from massively different backgrounds. Whether you’re a dear old Oak Parker from the suburbs of Chicago like me, and, let’s face it, you’re definitely not, or someone that grew up with old gold running through your veins from before you were born, Tech means something a little different to each of us. That’s why Tech’s traditions, even more so that the Institute’s history, are things that affect each person that experiences them in an astounding variety of ways, and, critically, on such a personal level.
The first running of the Freshman Cake Race was in 1911. Of course, it wasn’t called that back then since neither name really applied - there were no cakes, and members from any class could run the race. According to the ever-trusty Dress Her in White and Gold, “This is the oldest of all RAT traditions and dates back to the first cross-country run,” (Wallace, 110). By the 1913 edition, the tradition of baked goods given to the winner had sprung up, with the faculty wives, along with mothers, sisters, and sweethearts of the students, baking the first cakes for the winners. Of course, in those days, it would be almost another four decades before women began full-time undergraduate education at the Georgia Institute of Technology, so only the fastest man was the one awarded top prize.
According to Wallace, “The early races were run by members of all classes and were not compulsory, but they drew extremely large fields as evidenced by the fact that in many years, well over 100 cakes were presented to the early finishers,” (Wallace, 110). He goes on to note, at the time, the record number of cakes presented was in the neighborhood of 160.
In those early days, the race was truly a cross-country excursion. Though at first it ranged from two to four miles, from campus to the Atlanta Waterworks, the event slowly morphed into the contemporary half-mile race run every homecoming nowadays. In fact, in 1935, the event was moved to the homecoming slate and became mandatory for freshmen. In 1954, a kiss from the first homecoming queen became a part of the winner’s spoils, and, to this day, the winners of the race receive a kiss from Mr. and Mrs. Georgia Tech.
Being the Bastion of Capitalization and Grammar Skills and also Georgia Tech sports, it would be an unfortunate omission to gloss over the hidden benefits of a mandatory race of every freshman on campus. It was not a well-kept secret that Dean George C. Griffin, a noted jack of all trades over his eons at Tech at literally every level imaginable, regularly staked out the race to scout young men for the track team. Griffin, who is immortalized both in bronze near the array of student life buildings that bear his name and the outdoor track also dedicated to him, was not only an administrator, but also served athletics as the varsity track coach. Many a “country boy” was turned into a Tech athlete because he was found at the Freshman Cake Race.
The Freshman Cake Race has not been without its share of controversy over the years. The mandatory herding of freshmen to the starting line has now been relaxed, in a similar fashion to the phase-out of the once ubiquitous RAT caps. Many of the formerly compulsory quirks of campus have faded as Tech becomes both less regimented. That said, the race regularly draws over 1,000 freshmen to the half-mile course early Homecoming morning annually. With signups still open, a record amount of runners could easily turn out in ten days as a part of the largest running of the Freshman Cake Race in its history.
Of course, the continued existence of the race itself has been called into question over the years, as concerns about the safety of runners and the actions of spectators has been occasionally worrisome. Obviously, the desire of the Institute and the organizers, the Ramblin’ Reck Club, is that the participants run a good, clean race. However, in the past, various nefarious plots and debaucherous actions have put the health of everyone involved at risk. The last few years have, quite fortunately, been productive and safe. The implementation of the chip timing system, meaning time is recorded relative to when the runner crosses both the start and the finish lines rather than a timer from a starting gun, and the separation of runners into four heats have significantly improved the event of late.
Annually, the race begins on a cue from the Reck itself. Last year, the half-mile circuit took runners down Fowler Street to Fourth, over to Techwood Drive, right on Bobby Dodd Way, past Callaway Plaza, and then partially up Freshman Hill to a finish line conveniently at the starting line of the previous night’s Mini 500. At the finish line, cake await the winner, as always, as well as cupcakes for every participant in the race. A small prize to atone for the early start to a long day of festivities.
That’s the thing about Cake Race. Such an overwhelming number of other people - most whom you’ve never seen before and could very well never see again - run it. It’s cold, usually. It’s dark. Personally, I’m terrible at running. But, at the same time, it forces one to truly appreciate being a part of something bigger than oneself. It’s tough coming off to college, especially from far away and not knowing anyone. But doing things like getting up before the rooster crows for a cupcake with newly-minted or long-time friends brings people together. Being in a 55,000 seat stadium is one thing, and it’s special, to be sure. But there are also smaller things that set Tech apart from every other school on the face of the Earth. Only 50 teams, themselves limited in size, can run the Mini 500. Without vehicular power, you’re straight out of luck in the Wreck Parade. The Freshman Cake Race is ethereal. The Freshman Cake Race can be universal. We share traditions, history, and passion for what is, above all, a unique Institute on a hill overlooking Downtown Atlanta. It’s special, and so is being a Tech fan. The Freshman Cake Race is huge a part of what makes the Tech experience exactly that.
A special thanks to my esteemed colleagues and friends here at From the Rumble Seat and in the Ramblin’ Reck Club, including the T-Book staff, as well as Dress Her in White and Gold and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column. These columns are truly the aggregate of all the things we as Tech fans hold dear. Week in and week out, being able to learn new things and explore things already known, with the help of the staff of FTRS and other historical Tech buffs outside the staff is something I look forward to every Wednesday afternoon.
If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below. Happy homecoming season, and go Jackets!