Pinewood Derby Stories and Photos from Maximum Velocity
New Directions Company Profile by John Shreffler
The 2010 pinewood derby season is in full swing, and I would like to say "Hi" to all the race leaders and parents involved in this excellent youth program, and wish you a very successful derby. Perhaps I might be able to help you with some of my products.
I have been involved in the pinewood derby since 1987, first as a dad helping my son get a car finished for the big day. Later on, beginning in the early 90's, I developed and offered for sale my first in a succession of pinewood derby products. You can read a more detailed story of the early days on our web site at: www.newdirections.ws/newdirection.html
The product of most interest has always been the electronic finish line. Twenty years ago, it was still the normal situation to judge the races using eyeballs. Today, however, it is the normal situation to pick out the finishing order electronically. It is a task for which human eyesight is simply not good enough.
My finish line is called "The Judge". Over the years it has evolved in outward appearance as shown below. Internally, every few years I have incorporated new electronic capabilities, and improved reliability.
Figure 1 - The Evolution Of The Judge
At the rear in Figure 1 is the first version of The Judge, which I now call the "Classic". The Classic was available only in two, three, and four lane versions, and only gave the finishing order. However, it had one thing going for it; it used only high speed gates and flip- flops (as opposed to a digital time base), so it had significantly greater ability to split hairs. Finishing order was resolved to nanoseconds. No ties have ever been reported with the Classic.
By 1996, microprocessors were getting inexpensive and powerful enough to handle not only the finishing order, but the reporting of the elapsed time back to a computer. Coincidentally, at about this time computers were getting so popular that most homes had one. The center Judge in Figure 1 shows the M Series (1996-1998), P Series (1998 briefly), Q Series (1998-2001) and F Series (2002-2004). Each "Series" means a significant change in microprocessor type or firmware improvements. Outwardly, this group of Judges looked the same.
In late 2004, I switched to a smaller, sleeker enclosure, and re- engineered the electronics to fit. The resulting G series, shown at the front in Figure 1 is electronically the same as the F series it replaced.
The current version is the J Series, introduced in 2007 and marked by significant improvements in the firmware and a new higher performance microprocessor.
Starting in 1996, all Judges have been available for tracks from one to eight lanes. A wide range of options are available to customize your finish line for your particular needs. Most Judges sold these days are equipped with the "Computer Option", which means the race result is sent back to your computer where it is automatically incorporated into your derby management program. This greatly relieves the race leaders of most of the work as the derby unfolds. In fact, the only important thing is making sure each car is on the correct lane for every race -- everything else is on auto pilot.
Another popular optional feature is the ability to work in any ambient light, including outdoor operation under full sun.
Figure 2 - Sandra drills the required holes in the Judge enclosure prior to final assembly
In the last few years, we have branched off from the finish line to offer a few ways to dress up the start line. The most exciting accessory has proven to be the Light Tree, which focuses attention on the start of each race. In fact, most groups report that everyone in the room does an enthusiastic backward countdown for each race as the lights drop to green.
Figure 3 - Keri does final connections of a batch of light trees
However, the Light Tree is not just decoration; we have developed a series of solenoid-activated latches that automatically open your starting gate when the light gets to green. It adds a touch of drama to see the cars start with nobody near the top of the track.
Figure 4 - Solenoid start mechanisms are available for many different styles of tracks
In Figure 4, clockwise from the Light Tree are: a standard plywood track latch, a BestTrack aluminum track latch, and a MicroWizard Freedom track latch.
In addition to these pinewood derby products, we also offer a finish line solution designed for the BestTrack Space Derby(1) track, which is also adaptable to home built tracks. Space Derby vehicles travel much faster than pinewood derby cars, so the need for electronic judging is even more critical.
In addition to our standard line of pinewood derby products, I get involved in making special timing solutions for other racing formats. I have successfully used the timing circuitry of The Judge in Cubmobile and Soap Box Derby tracks, snowmobile racing, track and field timing, and industrial process controls.
It has been a lot of fun and an honor to be associated with the pinewood derby program over the years; to my 4,700 customers, a big "Thank You" for choosing my products. I could not have done it without you.
Figure 5 - John Shreffler gives some tips on car placement
John Shreffler Owner, New Directions
New Directions is a major supplier of pinewood derby timers, and other race management electronics and hardware. They are located in Vienna, Virginia; and can be found on the web at: http://www.newdirections.ws
(1) The Space Derby is a Cub Scout program which involves building and racing a propeller driven rocket ship. The ships are powered by rubber bands and race on monofilament line.