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Raising the Performance Bar

Most people have a sense of fair play. When two mismatched teams or
individuals compete with each other, interest usually wanes, and from a
sense of sympathy oftentimes the underdog is the crowd favorite. But
when inferior equipment, questionable coaching, or unawareness of the
rules disadvantages one competitor, most people hardly consider the
event to be a truly fair contest.

People generally prefer to watch an event where the teams or individuals
are evenly matched. When skills, equipment, coaching, and officiating
are all relatively even, then a sense of fairness prevails and -- because
the outcome of the event is uncertain -- the interest level of the
spectators remains high.

Similarly in pinewood derby racing the most exciting events are those in
which many of the cars are closely matched in performance. Since the
outcome is uncertain, everyone will be on the edge of their seats until
the races are concluded.

Due to mistakes, inexperience, shoddy work, etc., there will always be
some cars that are out-classed. But the goal of the race organizer
should be to give each entrant a full opportunity to perform at a high

How is this done? In today's article I will share several ideas for leveling
the playing field, not by penalizing the best cars, but instead by raising
the performance bar.

The first way to level the playing field is to provide clear and complete
rules for the event. The rules should clearly state what is, and what is
not allowed. Rules that require interpretation will result in entries using
performance-improving techniques that others had assumed were
disallowed. This can only result in disappointment or disillusionment.

Please note that I am not advocating highly restrictive rules. On the
contrary, I prefer to allow car designers to use their creativity and
ingenuity to increase performance. But to do this, the rules must clearly
state what is in bounds, and what is out of bounds.

Another kind of information to distribute is performance tips. Although
veterans of your event will likely know the tips already, this information
will most certainly be an eye opener to newcomers.

Equal access to performance tips could consist of distributing:

- a list of the better pinewood derby-related web sites,
- a locally-developed tip sheet, a tip sheet from a web site, or
- a commercially available speed tip booklet.

In any case, all participants should receive the race rules and the
performance information at the time when the car kits are distributed.

To raise the performance bar, participants should have equal access to
the required tools. In every organization there are some folks with an
extensive workshop and with skills to match. Others may not even own a
hand saw. Clearly, this leads to lopsided events.

A simple way to provide equal access to tools (and skills) is to hold one
or more workshops prior to the event. Of course workshops are more
than just an opportunity to share tools. These events provide
opportunities for comparing/learning techniques, collaborating on design
ideas, and in general becoming more competent in car building. In recent
years, we have held a workshop for our group on two consecutive
Saturdays at Maximum Velocity. Kids and parents use the tools, seek
advice, test cars on the track, and collaborate with the other
participants. For those with little pinewood derby experience, attending a
workshop can make a big difference in car performance.

In particular I remember two boys and their single mom who attended a
workshop for some assistance. I helped them add weight to the car,
prepare the wheels and axles, and loaned them some graphite. They
ended up taking first and second in their age category -- not bad for their
first event!

Another way to raise the performance bar is to allow practice time on a
derby track. This gives participants the opportunity to test their cars, and
thus recognize if changes are needed.

One concern with allowing practice time is that some competitors may
become disillusioned if they are continually bested during practice. To
avoid this issue, disallow racing between competitors during the practice
time. Instead, each entrant may run their car alone (sufficient if the track
has a timer), against the entrant's car from a previous year, or against a
"benchmark" car. This minimizes comparing cars during the practice
time, but still allows the entrants to ascertain how their car is performing.

Would you consider it a true competition if the New York Yankees were
pitted against a college baseball team? Not likely. But a similar
mismatch does occur in some pinewood derby events. If your derby has
rather flexible car design rules (e.g., allows modified wheel bases,
machined wheels, or similar), then likely the event will end up with some
high-performance cars leaving the more traditional cars in the dust.

Obviously, the rules could be tightened to disallow certain modifications,
but I suggest an alternative. Instead of reducing design options, consider
offering different entry classes. How about a "Stock" class race for cars
with standard wheel bases, unmodified wheels, etc., and an "Open"
class race for cars with extended wheel bases, modified wheels, etc?
This will require more awards, and a little more time. However, I believe
you will find the increased competition and excitement will more than
compensate for the additional cost.

Raising the performance bar can help to make for a more memorable
pinewood derby event. By providing equal access to information, tools,
and practice time, and by possibly having multiple event classes, the
races will be closer and more exciting.

By the way, what I have included in this article certainly does not
exhaust the possibilities for raising the performance bar. If you have
other ways to raise the level of competition, please share them with me.

Read More at: Pinewood Derby Times Volume 8, Issue 11

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