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Raising the Performance Bar

Most people have a sense of fair play. When two mismatched teams or individuals compete with each other, interest usually wanes, and from a sense of sympathy oftentimes the underdog is the crowd favorite. But when inferior equipment, questionable coaching, or unawareness of the rules disadvantages one competitor, most people hardly consider the
event to be a truly fair contest.

People generally prefer to watch an event where the teams or individuals are evenly matched. When skills, equipment, coaching, and officiating are all relatively even, then a sense of fairness prevails and -- because the outcome of the event is uncertain -- the interest level of the spectators remains high.

Similarly in pinewood derby racing the most exciting events are those in which many of the cars are closely matched in performance. Since the outcome is uncertain, everyone will be on the edge of their seats until the races are concluded.

Due to mistakes, inexperience, shoddy work, etc., there will always be some cars that are out-classed. But the goal of the race organizer should be to give each entrant a full opportunity to perform at a high level.

How is this done? In today's article I will share several ideas for leveling the playing field, not by penalizing the best cars, but instead by raising the performance bar.

The first way to level the playing field is to provide clear and complete rules for the event. The rules should clearly state what is, and what is not allowed. Rules that require interpretation will result in entries using performance-improving techniques that others had assumed were disallowed. This can only result in disappointment or disillusionment.

Please note that I am not advocating highly restrictive rules. On the contrary, I prefer to allow car designers to use their creativity and ingenuity to increase performance. But to do this, the rules must clearly state what is in bounds, and what is out of bounds.

Another kind of information to distribute is performance tips. Although veterans of your event will likely know the tips already, this information will most certainly be an eye opener to newcomers.

Equal access to performance tips could consist of distributing:

- a list of the better pinewood derby-related web sites,
- a locally-developed tip sheet, a tip sheet from a web site, or
- a commercially available speed tip booklet.

In any case, all participants should receive the race rules and the performance information at the time when the car kits are distributed.

To raise the performance bar, participants should have equal access to the required tools. In every organization there are some folks with an extensive workshop and with skills to match. Others may not even own a hand saw. Clearly, this leads to lopsided events.

A simple way to provide equal access to tools (and skills) is to hold one or more workshops prior to the event. Of course workshops are more than just an opportunity to share tools. These events provide opportunities for comparing/learning techniques, collaborating on design ideas, and in general becoming more competent in car building. In recent years, we have held a workshop for our group on two consecutive Saturdays at Maximum Velocity. Kids and parents use the tools, seek advice, test cars on the track, and collaborate with the other participants. For those with little pinewood derby experience, attending a workshop can make a big difference in car performance.

In particular I remember two boys and their single mom who attended a workshop for some assistance. I helped them add weight to the car, prepare the wheels and axles, and loaned them some graphite. They ended up taking first and second in their age category -- not bad for their first event!

Another way to raise the performance bar is to allow practice time on a derby track. This gives participants the opportunity to test their cars, and thus recognize if changes are needed.

One concern with allowing practice time is that some competitors may become disillusioned if they are continually bested during practice. To avoid this issue, disallow racing between competitors during the practice time. Instead, each entrant may run their car alone (sufficient if the track has a timer), against the entrant's car from a previous year, or against a "benchmark" car. This minimizes comparing cars during the practice time, but still allows the entrants to ascertain how their car is performing.

Would you consider it a true competition if the New York Yankees were pitted against a college baseball team? Not likely. But a similar mismatch does occur in some pinewood derby events. If your derby has rather flexible car design rules (e.g., allows modified wheel bases, machined wheels, or similar), then likely the event will end up with some high-performance cars leaving the more traditional cars in the dust.

Obviously, the rules could be tightened to disallow certain modifications, but I suggest an alternative. Instead of reducing design options, consider offering different entry classes. How about a "Stock" class race for cars with standard wheel bases, unmodified wheels, etc., and an "Open" class race for cars with extended wheel bases, modified wheels, etc? This will require more awards, and a little more time. However, I believe you will find the increased competition and excitement will more than compensate for the additional cost.

Raising the performance bar can help to make for a more memorable pinewood derby event. By providing equal access to information, tools, and practice time, and by possibly having multiple event classes, the races will be closer and more exciting.

By the way, what I have included in this article certainly does not exhaust the possibilities for raising the performance bar. If you have other ways to raise the level of competition, please share them with me. Thanks!

From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 8, Issue 11

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