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Elimination Race Methods - Let's Make Some Improvements

For many years, our organization used a double-elimination method for
staging pinewood derby races. As I observed the staging and outcome of
these races, I saw cases where the fairness of the race could be
questioned. As a result we implemented several improvements to minimize
these cases. Eventually, with the acquisition of race management
software, we moved away from an elimination method.

While the popularity of finish line electronics and race management
software has made a dent in the number of races using an elimination
method, it is still one of the most common methods for staging pinewood
derby races. While I personally recommend using an alternate method,
organizations will continue to use elimination methods far into the

So let's dig further into this method of racing. We will first take a
quick look at the basics of elimination methods, look at the pro and
cons, and then see what can be done to improve this method of race


The basic characteristic of an elimination method is that entrants are
incrementally eliminated from the competition until only the winning
entrants remain. Thus, in pinewood derby racing as the races progress,
cars are eliminated from the competition, narrowing the field down to
the fastest cars.

The most common elimination method is a double-elimination. In this
type of race, a car stays in the competition until it has lost two
times. However, other elimination methods can also be used. For
example, in a single elimination race, cars are eliminated after one
loss, while in a triple-elimination, cars are eliminated after three
losses (three strikes, you're out).


Elimination methods provide several advantages to race organizers -
which we will see below. But elimination methods also have a clear
appeal to the competitively-oriented mind of most humans. With
elimination methods, since heats eliminate (or contribute to the
elimination of) entrants, every heat is extremely important to the cars
being raced. The audience tends to follow the event very closely to see
which cars will prevail, and which will be eliminated (a bit like the
gladiator events in the Roman Coliseum). This also has a down-side
which will be discussed later.

Regardless of the audience appeal, here are three advantages of
elimination methods to the race organizer:

1. Easy to Stage - Several methods exist for staging elimination races
either manually or with a computer. The methods are generally easy to
implement, thus minimizing pre-race effort.

2. Shorter Event Time - With an elimination method, the total number of
heats is generally less than with a rotational method. Therefore, with
efficient race staging, the overall length of the event can be shorter.

3. Facilitates Human Judging - While electronic finish lines are very
valuable, races can be reasonably staged with human judges since only
first place (or possibly first and second place) in each heat must be


However, there are several disadvantages to elimination methods:

1. Lane Bias - No track has lanes which are exactly the same; generally
one lane will be the fastest and another the slowest. Cars which, by
the luck of the draw, are placed on the slow track will be
disadvantaged. A car racing on the slow lane can be eliminated even
though it is faster than the car on the fast lane.

2. Low Accuracy Beyond First and Second - By definition, a
single-elimination race can only accurately determine first place;
double-elimination determines first and second place; triple-elimination
the top three places. Why is this? Consider the fastest three cars in
a double-elimination race. If the top three cars race together early,
then the second and third-fastest cars will be moved to the loser's
bracket. If they then race each other again before the final heats, the
third fastest car will be eliminated. Some other car will (in error)
win the third place trophy.

Thus, if your organization runs a double-elimination and wishes to give
out three speed trophies, additional racing must occur to determine
third place (see IMPROVEMENTS for methods to allow three trophy winners
with a double-elimination race).

3. Crowd Control - As cars are eliminated, owners of the eliminated cars
tend to get bored, resulting in crowd control issues. By the way, this
applies to both kids and their parents!

4. Minimal Race Time - Similarly, when a child and their parent spend
significant time building a car, they would like the opportunity to see
their car race as many times as possible. But with elimination methods,
the slowest cars will only (officially) race two times. This can
certainly be a downer.


How can improvements be made to address some of the disadvantages of
elimination methods? The following are some ideas for you to consider.

1. Lane Bias - First, recognize that lanes are not equal. Therefore,
make sure that Race officials don't select which cars are placed on
which lanes. When using a race chart, identify the lanes on the chart,
and place cars into the chart using a randomization process, such as
drawing car numbers out of a box. If you don't use a race chart, but
instead dynamically select lanes, randomize lane assign by drawing lane
numbers. While this does not eliminate the problem with the lanes, it
does eliminate any question as to whether an official was biased towards
or against certain cars.

2. Low Accuracy Beyond First and Second - When using a
double-elimination method, ensure that third place is awarded fairly by
doing one of the following:

- After all heats have been run and first and second places have been
determined, rerun all of the other cars to determine third. This method
is not very exciting.

- Assuming you have a track of three or more lanes, in each heat keep
the top two cars as 'winners', and the other car(s) as losers. Continue
this process until only four cars remain. Eliminate one car. The
remaining three are the trophy winners. Eliminate one more car - this
is third place. Then race the two remaining cars to identify first and
second place.

3. Crowd Control - To maintain interest, defer racing of the loser's
bracket for as long as possible. If you are using a race chart, try
completing the winners bracket before running the loser's bracket. If a
chart is not used, then alternate back and forth, winners to losers, to
keep everything in synch.

Another idea is to split the total group into several smaller groupings,
then race the smaller groupings. Provide alternate activities for the
groups which are not racing. If desired, the top finishers in each
group can be raced to determine an overall winner.

4. Minimal Race Time - This cannot be completely resolved with
elimination methods, but for small groups consider running a deeper
elimination (e.g., triple or quadruple). For larger groups, provide a
second track for ad hoc racing of eliminated cars (oftentimes the kids
just want to race - they are less concerned about winning than the


Improving the fairness of pinewood derby events is certainly an
important consideration for the race officials. I encourage you to do
take the extra effort to review your race method and make improvements
wherever necessary to increase the fairness and fun for all

From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 3, Issue 7

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