Pinewood Derby Stories and Photos from Maximum Velocity
Handle Those Cars Carefully
By Randy Davis
Sometimes I receive an e-mail that fills me with sympathy and some
anger. Here is one of those e-mails from Scott Carpenter:
"This was the result of an accidental drop after a small child got
hold of the car. We had another car get broken in the same race.
Needless to say we will no longer race with a group that does not
impose car handling guidelines."
Photo 1 - Scott Carpenter's Car
Ouch. Clearly, this car didn't have much structure and needed to be
carefully handled. But regardless, the real question is why was a
small child allowed access to the car?
I believe that the race officials are responsible for safeguarding
cars that have been checked-in. This safeguarding is not only to
prevent damage to the cars, but also to prevent tampering with the
cars by the car owner or by competitors. Therefore, after a car is
checked-in, it may only be handled for the following reason:
1. A race official may place a car onto the check-in/staging table.
2. A race official may verify a car's registration number if needed.
3. A race official may place a car into storage (if the race is at a
later date than the check-in).
4. A car owner may stage the car (or a race official, depending on
the race rules).
5. A car owner may retrieve the car and put it back on to the staging
table (or a race official, depending on the race rules).
6. Under supervision of a race official, a car owner may repair a car
(race rules should specify what repairs are allowed).
7. No other person may touch a checked-in car.
If these guidelines are followed, then mishaps such as Scott
Carpenter's should never happen. However, there are many other
factors that race officials need to address in order to minimize car
damage and to prevent unauthorized access to cars. Let's look at each
stage of the race event and address car handling for each one.
CAR STAGING EQUIPMENT
First, race officials must provide a way for cars to be safely held on
a staging table. Years ago, before any commercial solutions were
available, we taped 1x2 inch boards lengthwise on the staging tables.
The cars would then straddle the board, which kept them from rolling.
Although a bit crude, this solution did secure the cars. I have seen
photos of other simple solutions, as well as more elegant solutions,
such as table-sized trays with slots for each car.
But if you don't want to make your own solution, now there are
commercially available solutions that work quite well. One solution
is the DerbyStop, which is an inexpensive solution available at many
pinewood derby sites.(1) The DerbyStop is basically a large sheet of
card stock that is creased so that one pair of wheels is immobilized.
Although the DerbyStop seems too simple to work, it is actually very
effective at immobilizing cars.
Photo 2 - DerbyStop
Another solution is the "Car Staging Parking Lot" from Lisano
Enterprises.(2) The parking lots have a raised cushion to keep the
wheels elevated. We use these parking lots at our race as they can be
lifted and slipped into our storage cabinet while fully loaded.
Photo 3 - Car Parking Lot
Now that there is a way to immobilize checked-in cars, let's consider
area security. Pinewood derby cars are an attraction and people will
naturally want to look and touch. So, race officials must establish a
perimeter to keep unauthorized people away from the cars. I believe
you do want people to be able to see the cars, but not allow them to
touch the cars.
At our check-in, we use a line of tables as the perimeter. These
tables are used as a work area for checking in the cars, and the
staging tables are located behind the perimeter tables. Only race
officials are allowed behind the perimeter tables.
Photo 4 - Our Check-in Area
(The corners of the perimeter tables are shown in the foreground.)
Another common way to limit access to the staging tables is with
barrier tape (see "Race Day" for photos of barrier tape in use).
However, with any method, you must have a person assigned to watch the
staging tables to make sure unauthorized people do not gain access by
going around, over, or under the perimeter barrier. It's amazing the
number of people that think that barriers do not apply to them.
If your race is held immediately after check-in, then you do not need
to store the cars. But if your race is held on a day following the
check-in, then a safe and secure storage method needs to be in place.
We have a purpose built cabinet that was made to fit the parking lots.
The cabinet is on wheels, has locked doors, and is rolled into a
Photo 5 - Our Storage Cabinet
For even more security, we place a seal (actually a sticker name tag)
across the doors. The name tag is signed by the club leader and me.
If the cabinet is tampered with before it is officially opened on race
night, then the tampering will be evident. This process may seem
excessive to you, but if a parent ever asks how we ensure that no
tampering occurs while the cars are stored, we are ready with a good
Photo 6 - Security Seal
On race day, the cars are secured on the staging tables, the perimeter
is secure, and an official is watching the cars. All cables are
secured with gaffer's tape so that they are not a trip hazard. All
cables that run the length of the track are on one side of the track,
and all walking is done on the other side of the track.
Photo 7 - Use of Barrier Tape Around Race Area
Photo 8 - All Cabling on Left Side of Track, Traffic on Right Side
(Small table near track on right side is removed before the race)
Owner Staged Cars
If the race format has the car owners stage and retrieve their own
cars, then all you have to do is supervise the staging table,
starting line, and finish line to make sure the owners are only
handling their cars. The rest is up to the owners.
Official Staged Cars
However, if your race format is for the race officials to stage and
retrieve the cars, then some additional procedures must be in
place.(3) First two rules must be established:
1. A race official never holds more than one car in each hand.
2. A car is always held in the body area between the front and rear
wheels. It is never held by the wheels or by the front or rear of the
These two rules greatly reduce the risk of dropping or damaging a car.
Now, it is just a simple matter of procedure. I will outline what we
do; you can use this as a model, or modify it as needed.
We use three officials at the starting line. The first official pulls
the cars for the next heat (two cars at a time), and places them on a
parking lot near the starting gate. The other two officials place the
cars (two per official) onto our four-lane track. One of the officials
then triggers the starting gate.(4) We have found that having a third
official pull the cars for the next heat while the current heat is
being run greatly speeds up the event.
I have seen some races where a carrier box is used to bring all of the
cars to the starting gate at one time.(5) This method can work well
but it tends to be a little slower for staging heats. If you do use a
carrier box, make sure the box immobilizes the cars so that they do
not roll and do not bump into each other.
We place two additional officials (usually responsible teens - this
job involves a lot of squatting and can be tough on us older folks!)
at the finish line to retrieve the cars. When the cars pass through
the finish line, each official picks up two cars (one in each hand),
brings the cars back to the staging table, and places them in their
proper position. Admittedly, this job could be done by one official
with a four-car carrier box.
Car safety and security should be foremost in the mind of race
officials. People put blood, sweat, and tears (and money) into their
cars and they have a right to expect that their cars will be treated
with care. So, take the time to review your car handling procedures
to make sure you are treating the cars with the care they deserve.
(3) At our pinewood derby, we have five races: pre-school to
kindergarten, first and second grade, third and fourth grade, fifth
and sixth grade, and an outlaw race. The race officials stage and
retrieve the cars for the first three races, and the car owners stage
and retrieve the final two races.
(4) The gate is triggered after first getting a "nod" from the person
running the computer, and after verifying that the people retrieving
the cars are in place and squatting down.
(5) I am not a fan of carrier boxes as even a slight trip or misstep
could result in cars flying out of the box. If one car is held in
each hand, the person is more balanced and better able to recover from
a misstep. But this is just my opinion.