Pinewood Derby Stories and Photos from Maximum Velocity
Leader Help - How Much is Too Much?
(An update of an article originally published Volume 2, Issue 9 - January 22, 2002)
The purpose of this article is to discuss the appropriate level of involvement by leaders in assisting car owners. The child (or child/parent team) is the car owner and should be responsible for their own creation. But sometimes overzealous leaders step in too quickly and off-load some of that responsibility.
MY EXPERIENCE To set the stage, let me first share excerpts from our past derbies.
My first involvement in assisting with the pinewood derby at our local club was helping at the weigh-in. At that time, a man brought along a drill, a propane touch, and a bunch of lead tire weights, and proceeded to add weight to light-weight cars. Drill a hole, melt some lead(1), next car ...
At the time it seemed like a good idea to me, so the next year I took over that job. Drill a hole, melt some lead, next car ... . However, things quickly turned sour.
Some of the cars weighed virtually nothing, so many holes were needed. Inevitably, some of the holes went all the way through the car, resulting in fierce glares from the parents. In other cases, the lead burned the paint job. This is not to mention the burns on my hands (and likely a reduced life expectancy due to lead inhalation!).
I was at my wit's end by the end of the night, and the last car was the final straw. A mom brought in a car that needed about an ounce of weight. I drilled a hole, melted some lead, and weighed the car. 4.9 ounces. Not good enough for this mom. So, drill another hole, melt more lead, 5.1 ounces. Remove some lead. 5.0 ounces. Finally the lady was satisfied, and I had had enough.
I realized that I was performing an integral part of building the cars (adding the proper amount of weight) for most of the car owners in the club. Not only was I doing that in a crude (and dangerous) way, but the child/parent team had come to expect that this is the way it should be, and were off-loading part of the car building responsibility to the club and myself. If the car did not perform well, they could always rationalize, "Oh well, that guy at the weigh- in must have not weighted the car properly."
Why was our club taking on part of the car building responsibility? I decided it was time to make a change. I had a discussion with our club leader. He was at first reluctant to change things, but we finally reached an agreement. I would write a booklet explaining how to build a car (including proper weighting), which would be distributed with each car kit. In exchange, the club would no longer provide a weighting service at the weigh-in.
Fast forward to next year. In every flier and announcement it was made clear that the club would not provide weight for underweight cars; the child/parent team were expected to take care of this important aspect of car building. Of course only about half the parents read the information, so many were upset when they showed up at the weigh-in and didn't have any method to add weight to their cars (a lot of pennies were used that year).
The next year, fewer parents expected the club to weight their cars, and most brought weight and adjusted the weight themselves. At the subsequent year’s weigh-in it was clearly understood by everyone that the child/parent team were responsible for their own car. In a few instances, I (or another parent) did provide some assistance. But most of that was eliminated because of the workshops held on preceding Saturdays.
CHILD/PARENT OWNERSHIP The basic premise of the pinewood derby is that the child/parent team is responsible for their car. They should design it, build it, and race it. Club or organization leaders should avoid (as much as possible - see below) participating in the building of the car. Why? Here are a few reasons:
1. The car owners need to be responsible for their own work. No one else can, nor should be held responsible for their level of success (or lack of).
2. Car owners that chose to do very little to their car could end up winners if a leader with excellent car building skills stepped in and reworked the car at the weigh-in. This would certainly be unfair to other car owners.
3. Leaders that step in and weight, lube, or adjust cars can easily damage a car. Trust me; this is not a situation you want to be in.
WEIGH-IN NO-NOS In addition to weighting the car, race leaders can easily fall into the trap of assisting in other car building areas at the weigh-in.
Lubrication - The most common area is lubrication (or rather lack-of lubrication). No matter how much information is provided to parents, cars will still show up at the weigh-in without lubrication. Leaders, don't grab the car and lubricate it! Instead, offer a spare tube of graphite, direct them outside (or to the designated lubrication area), and let them have at it - a tip on how to lubricate is certainly okay.
Wheels/Axles - Another area to avoid is fixing catawampus(2) wheels. Many times cars will arrive at the weigh-in with wheels that are inserted at odd angles, falling out, or covered with paint or glue. If needed, offer a new (unprepared) set of wheels/axles, glue, and/or advice, but let the car owners fix the problem.
Out of Spec Car Bodies - Several times I have seen cars show up that are too long, too tall, too low, or out of specification in some other way. Share this information with the car owner, give a suggestion on how to correct it, and then step aside.
EXCEPTIONS Of course there are exceptions to every rule.
Workshops Workshops are held so that the child/parent team can have access to tools and expertise that they might not have. It is certainly appropriate for club leaders to assist the child/parent team at these events. But assistance should be mostly limited to coaching. Show the car owners how to perform the step, and then let them do it (with the exception of major power tools). People learn best by doing, not by watching.
"Hardship" Cases There are sometimes cases where a child cannot get the parental assistance they need (for whatever reason). Certainly it is appropriate for a leader (or another parent) to step in and provide assistance in these cases.
Catastrophes If a catastrophe happens, (e.g., a car owner drops and breaks the car at the weigh-in) rendering assistance is certainly appropriate. A similar case is when a child car owner is at the weigh-in without their parent, and the child is not able to correct the problem.
The key point is that children (and oftentimes parents) need to learn responsibility. Leaders that are too quick to help can keep the car owners from learning this important lesson.
(1) As I indicated in the article, melting lead is a dangerous practice. We strongly urge you to avoid this practice. (2) One of my father’s favorite words, meaning "askew" or "off- kilter".