Pinewood Derby Stories and Photos from Maximum Velocity
How Has Pinewood Derby Racing Changed?
With pinewood derby racing being over fifty years old, I began to wonder how
the event has changed. These years have brought overwhelming changes in
technology, as well as broad societal changes. Has pinewood derby racing
been positively or negatively affected by these changes?
To answer this question I sent out a questionnaire to a number of pinewood
derby enthusiasts and have compiled their responses. Today’s article
contains the questions, a short summary of the responses, as a well as some
quotes from the participants that captures the essence of the responses.
I want to personally thank each of the people that responded for taking the
time to capture their thought. I trust that you will find their input
interesting and informative.
1. How many years have you been involved in pinewood derby racing?
Most responses ranged from six years to eighteen years.
Bill Launius - I participated in the pinewood derby myself as a scout; it
was a highlight of the scouting year for my dad and me. My son became
involved in scouting 3 years ago and it started all over again for me.
Don Murphy - From 1952 to 1955 my son was in Cub Scouts, and we held the
first pinewood derby. Then I wasn’t involved again until 1997 when Gary
McAulay (who had taken over my cub pack) discovered I was still around.
Michael Lastufka - We first moved to Texas and attended a church that had an
annual Awana Grand Prix nine years ago. In the three years prior to that
move, we’d seen only one Awana Grand Prix race in California, though our
children attended two different clubs. The track we saw had three
consecutively smaller hills on it. They couldn't find a place to store it
and by the time my oldest could participate, it was ruined by weather, and
there was no race.
2. What is the most significant change that has occurred to pinewood derby
The most common response was the Internet, followed by Electronic Finish
Lines (although the first race in 1953 had an electric finish line), modern
tracks, and race software. There are more comments on some of these later
in the article.
John Shreffler - High tech tracks are important, and electronic finish lines
are almost a must. But the most significant improvement in my opinion is
the creation of software packages that run the entire derby, such as
RaceView, DerbyMaster, and GrandPrix Race Manager. These have taken the
focus away from the adults bumbling their way through the grease pencils and
charts on tripods, and put the focus on the scouts and their cars, where it
Randy Lisano - There are lots of things that have made an impact, but I
would say that the Internet has had the most significant impact on pinewood
derby racing. It is a great medium to share knowledge on how to build the
cars and coordinate the races. This helps race coordinators put on a fair
and fun event and helps racers to learn the ‘secrets’ that might otherwise
be limited to just a few racers. It is also a great place to order race
equipment and supplies and car building supplies.
Michael Lastufka - With the Internet, it has become much easier to find out
how to make a good, fast car, and there are products, information and forums
for coordinators and experimenters. Our first year's car designs centered on
a couple of physics concepts I thought might be important. We couldn't get
the kind of information from people (parents) we needed. Either they didn't
want to give out their ‘secrets’ or they really didn't understand why it was
they had done well in the past. When one of our "naive" cars placed, I had
to conclude they really didn't know any more than we did.
3. How have electronic finish lines and computer scoring affected the event?
Overwhelmingly, electronic finish lines and computer scoring are viewed
positively. Comments included: more accuracy, less arguing, and faster heats
(crowd stays more engaged and less overall time for the event). There were
comments about possible inaccuracy of these devices, and some concern with
cumulative time scoring methods, but no one was willing to give them up. I
thought you would enjoy this anecdote.
John Shreffler - My son was a cub from '86 to '88. The first year, I was
picked out of the audience as a pinewood derby Judge, along with another
Dad. We quickly found out that it was not easy, and in a quick hushed
conversation, we agreed that it was more important to be decisive than
I was an electronic engineer, and in my spare time before the next year's
race, I put together a device that picked the winner of three lanes. It was
a big improvement and went over better than sliced bread.
The third year, I brought it back with a suggestion for a racing scheme that
was somewhat like the double elimination that is one of the standards many
packs use. When my son moved on, the scout leader came back every year to
see if he could borrow the system, and I finally just give it to him.
In 1992, I was out of a job, and thought about that system in a more serious
light. I designed it to do the finishing order of all three lanes, and for
mass production. I took a deep breath, ordered parts for 100 and bought a
small ad in Scouting Magazine. The Judge was born. I was scared. But
within 6 weeks, I sold every one.
The next year, I expanded to 2 and 4 Lanes. I doubled the inventory, but
again I was sold out before the season ended. In 1997, I got a web page and
it went from an amusing sideline to a real business. In two more years, I
never went back to working full time for others.
4. How has changes in our society affected the event (2-income families,
hectic schedule, ease of purchasing parts)?
Several people indicated that the fast pace of life has limited
participation, but Cory Young pointed out: I seem to remember always hearing
my Mom say, "There's just not enough hours in the day!" Things were busy
back then, too. Some additional comments:
Randy Lisano - There are probably less dads helping their kids build the
cars today than in years past, but I have seen moms, leaders and other
adults stepping up to help. With people’s lives so busy, it has meant that
many kids have not been able to participate at all, which is a shame.
Michael Lastufka - A few large families have cited cost as a reason for not
racing, but many more say they are too wrapped up in other things. Some
always prove it by buying the kits but not showing up at the event because
something came up. Then there are always those who make a point to tell
everyone that they built the car the night before!