Tennis Coach Drew Barrett Wants You to Take His Cake
In baking circles, Drew Barrett’s like the guy who only goes out on New Year’s Eve and ends up jumping on stage to sing with the band.
For 51 weeks a year he avoids mixing bowls, cake pans and whipped frosting. Outside of occasionally grilling, he doesn’t even cook.
But on that 52nd week, which falls in late August with the start of the school year, the call to bake overtakes. He finds himself awake at three or four in the morning, bleary-eyed, burnt out and buried in batter.
He doesn’t want to bake—he has to—and often battles last-minute stress when ambition struggles with deadline. Because as Davidson College men's head tennis coach, Barrett’s very competitive. After watching his first Cake Race 14 years ago—he wanted in.
Today, he’s mastered his game so well that he usually places as a top seed.
“It’s probably a competition only in my own head, but I want mine to be the first cake picked,” Barrett said. “When you compete, anxiousness becomes the fun—it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about the competition. And every year I want someone to come up with some really cool cake that will make me up my game even more.”
Wednesday’s annual race is a time-honored Davidson tradition where first-year students run a mile for cake. The tradition began in 1930, when the college’s cross-country coach didn’t have enough runners and ordered a race to recruit new talent. The winner got a cake.
Early cakes were rather pedestrian; think one or two layers, round or square, with vanilla or chocolate frosting.
Today many cakes include big, elaborate, artistic creations by bakers from Dining Services to faculty members, bakeries and local elementary school students. Many credit Barrett for elevating the level of competition and making himself a very tough act to beat.
“People go out of their way to dethrone him,” said Sandy Helfgott, Davidson’s director of physical education, recreation and wellness and official Cake Race guardian. A former Davidson resident saw Barrett’s cake one year and said, “I’m going to beat him.” She laughed about it, but it was her mission to get her cake picked before Drew’s.
“She tried for years and never did.”
Barrett usually bakes the first or second cake selected. He says gender plays a role: Each year, first choice alternates between the men’s or women’s winner. This year, men get first pick.
The men usually go for quantity—(in one case a sheet cake spanning a large piece of plywood) but women tend to focus more on quality, he said.
“The boys pick the biggest cake, they just want something ginormous, but the girls pick the best,” he said. “If I’m not going to do something big, I’ve got to do something great, because students love cake.”
Enough to Go Around
The Cake Race is extremely popular with Davidson’s athletes because tradition has winners sharing with their teams. Some veteran athletes have been known to advise their first-year teammates: “Don’t come back without a cake,” in a Mafioso sort of tone.
Of course rivalries exist among different teams.
Cross country runners usually win the top few slots, and often delight in picking cakes decorated in lacrosse, soccer or tennis themes, much to the annoyance of those teams. (Payback comes when the occasional non-cross-country runner wins a top slot, which as you can imagine, doesn’t sit well with their coaches.)
Women’s soccer player Keeley Copper is one of 10 first year members of her team running the race. When researching colleges she read about it and wrote in her “Why Davidson?” essay that the Cake Race was one reason.
She’s considered pretty fast, and her teammates are hopeful.
“I want to win a good cake,” Copper said. “My teammates say to go for the one that tastes and looks the best. So far, red velvet is the top choice.”
Barrett starts his production on Sunday, bakes Monday, and puts everything together Tuesday. He figures he spends about 18 to 20 hours over three days. As usual, he has grandiose plans— (hint: Think magic, old buildings, and multiple cake pan sizes)—and if history repeats itself, he’ll be up all night.
He’s hit a few snags in his time.
The first year he got serious about baking, his goal was to have his cake make the top 15. A petite woman with the 15th pick selected his cake, tried to lift it from the table and put it down because it was too heavy.
“But I still count it as making the top 15,” Barrett said.
Another time his wife, Mandy, sat in the back seat holding the cake when Barrett slammed on the brakes to avoid a student driving the wrong way on a one-way street. The cake lurched and Mandy Barrett saved it, but it later collapsed to an early death on the display table.
His family enables his aspirations.
For starters, they put up with him when he heats up their kitchen with flour, sugar, butter and ambition. Mandy Barrett (“She thinks I’m crazy”) sometimes helps with decorations. Daughters Kennedy, 11, and Zoe, 8, serve as muses, confirming that people will love an idea—or not.
On Cake Race day, his daughters like to stand by his creation to see who picks it, and in past years helped with the official, “On-your-mark-get-set-Go!” call for runners.
“The girls love coming to this, so do I—I really love the Cake Race,” Barrett said. “It really is the quintessential Davidson experience.”
His ideas come from the internet, popular books and movies. His memorable Cake Race confections include a dragon inspired by the movie “How to Train Your Dragon, a Pokémon during the Pokémon Go craze, a tennis playing minion riff on Despicable Me and last year’s winner, Princess Leia from Star Wars.
The Pokémon cake was not a winner. That happens—“And sometimes you learn more from losses than wins,” Barrett said. “Maybe my head was getting too big. That inspired me to become better.”
He gets countless requests to bake birthday cakes, but says no: “I encourage them to make their own cakes.”
Barrett’s had serious threats to his reign over the years, including a cake replicating a box of movie theater popcorn, and another buried in Kit-Kat bars: “It’s tough to compete with Kit-Kats.”
Then there’s Dining Services, whose cakes often place just ahead of or just behind him, depending on who gets first pick.
“Dining Services does a great job but their cakes are a little too polished—they need to get past that,” Barrett said. “For the Cake Race, you need to be more inventive.”
Upon hearing Barrett’s challenge to their masterpieces, Dining Services’ culinary school-trained pastry chefs, whose cakes were picked second, third and fourth last year, issued this terse statement:
“Take on who? We’ve never even heard of him. We haven’t even decided if we’re baking yet. We’ll see in the morning—it doesn’t take us three days to bake our cakes.”
The cakes awarded to student runners are donated by people in the Davidson community, from local families to faculty and staff. The Cake Race is not simply a competition between runners; it is a contest to see who can bake the best cake. Confections created by men's tennis coach Drew Barrett (pictured here) have placed among the top two cakes chosen in the past several years. Follow Davidson College on social media to find out how Barrett's latest effort fared.