Lessons Learned At Pinewood Derby

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Pinewood Derbies are fun.  At least for the kids.

The point, for the uninitiated, is to build a 5 ounce wooden car, from the block provided, that races down a 25-ish foot track faster than all the other kids’ cars.  Given the nature of wood carving, drilling, hot gluing, and the fine art of grinding axles, the kids don’t get to do a whole lot, especially at the younger ages.  So, in essence, it’s Dads against Dads.

We do ours at church, which hosts MPact Girls and Royal Ranger boys.  No Cub Scouts here.  This means it’s not just the boys who compete, which is how it was in the Derbies of my youth (at least that’s how I remember them).  In church, there are various classes of boys to compete against, the girls compete against each other (all reduced to one group since there’s so few of them), and then a group for leaders/dads/friends.

So, instead of the one car we had to build when I was a kid, I now put five of these little guys together every year.  This year, I had high hopes.  I had some good design ideas early, and really hoped to knock this out of the park.  I bought and registered five cars, but only brought three to the race.  I just never got around to building cars for Beth and I.photo 2(16)

Our routine is for the kids to comb the internet, looking for design ideas.  Once they’ve decided what they want their cars to look like, we brain storm how to make that happen using the blocks from the kits.  An added challenge is that my “workshop” is an 8 foot folding table in the basement.  I don’t have a pile of nice, shiny tools with which to work my magic.  I do, however, have a bunch of years experience.

I do the drilling and the majority of the cutting.  The kids get to do sanding, painting, and help with wheels and axles.  I can’t wait until they’re old enough to perform the actual deeds themselves, and I get to drop back into the role of advisor.

This year, my friend Jamie, who kicks some serious butt in her own right, brought to my attention a book she found online.  Her husband works out of town and the job of Derby Car fell to her this year.  She was amazed to read about how many things there were to consider and how many little tips there were for eking a few more mph out of your car.  Added bonus – using her book, the car she built beat the one my father helped my nephew build.  It would be fun to beat the old man!  So, armed with my years of experience, plus Jamie’s book on Derby tips, I was off.

Rules for Building a Great Derby Car –

1.  Use as much of the allotted 5 ounces you can.  The heavier the car, the better.

2.  Use a file to grind the little burrs from the axles.  They’re drop-forged, and the mold leaves little tabs that will slow you down.

3.  Aerodynamics doesn’t matter a bit.  I once weighted the block they issue you, and won the whole race.  No carving or sanding necessary.

4.  The center of balance for the car should be just a hair ahead of the rear axle.  More weight in the back will keep you strong after the initial drop.

5.  The wheels should be lovingly kissed with some 600-800 grade sandpaper to remove any imperfections.

6.  The masters will tell you that if you can get away with one wheel raised off the track, you’ll go faster.  For me, that’s always been harder to perfect than is worth the effort.

7.  Graphite powder isn’t enough.  Purists use graphite with molybdenum.

8.  If you can afford it, Tungsten is denser than lead, so you need less to achieve your desired weight.

Those are some of the basics.  The science you can be taught; the art you have to figure out on your own. *wink

Anyway, race day.

Our cars were a challenge this year.  Jacob wanted a Bad Piggies car, based on the iPad app of the same name.  Gabe wanted the one from the front of Jamie’s book, and it was a technical challenge for me, even with Tungsten weight.  It was so small, yet so hard to get weighted.  Liv wanted a race within a race.  She asked me to help her make a Pinewood Derby racetrack.  Last year we made a lady’s high heeled shoe.  That girl is creative.

Here they are:derby1 derby4 derby2 derby3 derby5 derby6


Results: We Won!  (most of us, anyway)

We pulled it off!  Gabe’s was either going to be a sure-fire winner, or the biggest bomb we’ve ever brought forth.  In both Gabe and Liv’s categories, they took first place in every race they ran.  We use a computer system to judge actual time raced, scaled miles/hour, etc.  So, for 8 cars, they’ll run 20 three-lane races to make sure everyone gets a chance to show their stuff.  Jake wasn’t as fortunate.  He never came in anything but last.  He didn’t seem to care until the end when trophies were being handed out.  I felt bad for him.  Two out three ain’t bad, though.

Gabe got to take part in the heat for champions.  Since it’s a Royal Ranger sanctioned race, and winners are allowed to move on to the regionals in Madison, only Rangers are allowed to compete for Grand Champion.  Gabe came in second place overall!  Liv won the award for Most Unusual!photo 3(14) photo(40) photo 5(3)

Moral of the story

The best part of the whole day was Eli Blanchard.  He’s a 4 year old (I hope.  If not, sorry Mom and Dad) kid from Woodville.  He’s pretty awesome.  He was the Grand Champion!  He had the fastest car I’ve ever seen.  His scaled speed was something like 204.9 mph!!  Gabe hit 202.something and Liv was in the upper 201.somethings.  All the dads went to Eli’s dad to find out what his secret was.  Turns out Eli was playing with his car this morning and it rolled off the kitchen table and a wheel broke off.  Not knowing if it would hold through the whole race, his parents spent the morning reminding him that it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play.  They were so afraid he’d lose everything, get mad/sad, and have his day ruined.  Not so!  He went home with three trophies, and a HUGE smile on his face.  All the books, tricks, tips, secret strategies and special graphite never made a difference – for any of us.  It’s that kind of uncertainty that really makes for great racing!

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1 comment

    • Christie on March 23, 2014 at 11:38 am
    • Reply

    As always, great Blog, congrats to Gabe and Olivia, next time Jake…. Bye the way, Jake’s car is in my dining room and looking “Awesome” love you!

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