Look at that S-Car Go!

My son is an 8-year old with Asperger’s syndrome, sometimes called high functioning autism. I am a leader in his Cub Scout pack, and together we were building a car for the annual Pinewood Derby. After our middle of the pack finish last year, we decided to do some
research on how to build a fast pinewood derby car. Using the Internet and a tape borrowed from our public library, my son and I designed our car. But as we all know, what we want and what we end up with can be drastically different (but sometimes just what we need).
Our car was shaped like a Japanese sandal. We originally were going to build a car shaped like a snail, but I am not a skilled wood worker and that design turned out to be too much work for the time remaining before the race. The car’s name was “S-car” after an old joke about a snail who put an “S” on the side of his car. When people saw him, they would say, “look at that S-car go! (escargot)
We were testing the car the night before the race, trying to get it to roll straight. I was adjusting one of the front wheels when the wood in front of the axle snapped. Just for kicks I tried the car without the wheel. It rolled in a perfect line on three wheels (something that I had tried to accomplish, but could not do!) So, I glued that wheel on at a serious angle to minimize track contact. My son finished the car by putting snail stickers all over it.
Race day came, and being a leader I was in charge of the car table. My son’s car did not look like much compared to the Formula 1 cars, dragsters and roadsters. But once the racing started, things became interesting.
Our car won the first heat in a convincing fashion. All the leaders who knew my son congratulated him on his win. When his car won the next four races in the same fashion (over some of their son’s cars), things started to change. The former Cub Master kept holding the car in his hand, moving it up and down like he was weighing it (he was the official that weighed it in and inspected it!). I asked what the problem was and he said, “I know this is legal, I weighed it in and inspected it, but it feels a lot heavier than the other cars” (The car’s center of gravity was about 1 inch in front of the rear wheels). After each win, someone else would pick the car up, spin the wheels, and look at the weight layout.
In the end, my son’s car swept the derby; not a second place or a race closer than one-quarter car length the whole time. A few father’s came up to me after the race, wanting to know my “secrets”. I told them, “Do your homework – everything I know about pinewood derby design and speed hints, I found on the Internet.” But even with all the hard work, hand work and homework, our win that night was truly sealed by the “lucky” break of our front wheel the evening before the race. The “S” on our car could stand for serendipity – the ability to discover things by accident.
My son still hasn’t stopped talking about his win and how proud he is of his effort. Due to his condition, I do not know what his future will be like – what he will be able to do for a living, if he will marry, have children, how much of the world he will explore and understand outside of his tightly focused mindset – but I, with the help of people like Michael Lastufka, Randy Davis and their websites, was able to help him make a car that gave him a chance to be a winner and to be proud of his accomplishment.
Kenneth N. Friedel
Baltimore, MD
From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 15, Issue 7
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