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Pinewood Derby Perspective

My scout has officially run his last race and moved on to Boy Scouts, so I would like to pass along some of my memories, both good and bad as I end this chapter of our scouting trail.

I grew up as a scout but in my pack we never had a pinewood derby; until my son’s race I hadn’t even heard of it. But I enjoy building things and I was ready to give it a shot when we heard about the pinewood derby.

Our first year neither of us knew anything about weighting, aerodynamics, or any of the many things that can speed up a car. I did a little research and found out about deburring and polishing and that was about it for our first year.

My son and his coping saw cut out his car and I helped him use a drill to hollow out the bottom for the stock triangle shaped weights. We hot glued it together, put some stickers on it, and called it a car. It looked like a 7 year-old build it, but we thought it was great.

When we arrived at the race I realized there were some parents who took this a little more seriously than I ever dreamed possible. My hope was my son would enjoy the race, have a good time, and learn a little about building something. When they announced the double elimination rule - two losses and you were out - I had this terrible feeling my son was going to lose early, he would be upset that all his hard work was for nothing, and the night was heading downhill.

In the end he wound up the winner of his den and one of the 3 overall winners that went on to the District race. He didn’t do well at the district race but he was just happy he made it. I was, to say the least, astonished.

Everyone assumed that since I worked around cars during the day, I obviously knew some kind of trick and built the car for him. Whatever, I brushed it aside till next year; at which point I got hooked.

I did hours of research, I told my son when things were wrong, and I did more work than he did. It didn’t look much better than the previous year’s car, it didn’t win and we didn’t have as much fun building it.

There were some track problems and some questionable rulings, and due to some incorrect handwritten postings we lost earlier than we should have. But I let it go and decided if I didn’t like the way it worked I better get involved and do it myself.

The next year we needed a new committee chair for the derby and I volunteered. I researched all the different ways to run a race and equipment available, and wound up buying the race management software to avoid the posting problems of the past.

I borrowed our church basement, bought a copy of the Maximum Velocity movie, and showed it at a workshop. A few parents brought tools and supplies. I found a few designs for those who needed help getting started, and even the parents who didn’t have the slightest idea on how to build a car were able to build something together with their kids. Some needed very little help, some needed a lot of help, but they all walked out of the workshop able to bring a race car to the practice and the event.

However, while I was spending all this time working on making the program better for all the kids I gave my son less help than ever before. It wasn’t till the night before the race I realized I may have made it better for all the other Scouts, but I didn’t make it better for my son.

The race had tons of technical difficulties with the old 4 lane wooden track throwing cars, and the timer showing cars that obviously did not win as winning. The worst scenario was when a fairly slow car finished fourth on our 4 lane track the timer, but the timer recorded it as 8th place.

My son did pretty good taking 2nd in his Den with the minimum amount of help I gave him, but we didn’t get to do much of it together.

The only bright spot was the parents. They told me how much more they enjoyed the derby than in years past. The kids really got to run their cars, and having refreshments and food made it more like a party.

It wasn’t so much that they told me that, but they made it a point to thank my son for the work I did. In his eyes I did something really special, even if it wasn’t specifically for him. To have your 9 year-old son tell you he is proud of you is more tremendous a feeling that I can ever begin to put into words.

OK that was it!! The next year was going to be the jewel of all races, the one that people would talk about across the land. As it turned out I think people are still talking about it. We held a Popcorn sale and made enough money to buy (what my research determined) the biggest, baddest, Pinewood Derby Track combination on the market - a 44 foot, 6 lane aluminum track with laser gate timing, and double-sided remote display. If you could get it, we got it.

We set up a camera for replays, connected the computer to a projector, and had the Boy Scouts come in to run the concessions with coffee and donuts in the morning progressing to pizza, candy and drinks in the afternoon. We had special driver's licenses laminated with the kid’s pictures holding their cars. This was going to be cool ...

... right up until the battery died on the camera and the projector couldn’t be set up in a good place. The quicksand continued. One lane of our new track was unusable as it had a big bump we couldn’t adjust, and it was throwing cars everywhere. We reconfigured the races which extended the time. Then the gate didn’t trip and we had to power the system down fairly often. Then the back side of the display was reading different from the front side of the display, and people were getting frustrated.

I had built in enough time that even though things went wrong by missing lunch and a break, by the finals we were caught up. Then the timer froze: no times, no places, no results.

I was extremely fortunate that year to have a family out of the blue step up and help. They, for all intensive purposes, ran the show as if they had planned it themselves. They helped solve the problems, they helped keep everything running, they were the ones who, in the end, really made a bad situation turn out as well as could be expected. Pinewood LaserGate2005. I am sure people are still taking about it.

Then this year, our last year, the same family took the track and spent hours fixing the lanes, and running countless hours of tests to finally determine our problem from the year before (most likely a combination of an overheated power supply and a bad serial port cable). They set up the races, they organized the location, they did every aspect of the show and it turned out tremendous.

As for my son and his car, he and I spent quite a few hours working on it together. Now that he is 11, I showed him the information I had and we discussed together what type of weight to use, where to place it, and which design he wanted. I got all the tools out and I put all the tools away, but he used them. He deburred his own axles, he polished them, and he picked the weights. He built his car and I got to watch how it was supposed to be done.

He built it, he won it, and he went on to the district races again, a great way to end his Cub Scout racing career.

The Scouts (and /or parents) who built those District cars were serious contenders. I overhead a few comments that made me realize that even though we didn’t win I guarantee we got more out of our experience than those so called winners will ever know.

"Oh, his dad just bought one already assembled on E-bay; it’s supposed to be a winner." or " ... and when he grows up then he can build one for his kids."

I saw the movie Down and Derby; I was almost there. Parents don’t let this opportunity to work WITH your kids pass you by.

RJ Irwin

P.S. I want to once again give Maximum Velocity a huge thank you for all the help over the years. Please continue to help others as you have helped me.

From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 6, Issue 1

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