Pinewood Derby Elimination Race Methods – Let’s Make Some Improvements

For many years, our organization used a double-elimination method for staging pinewood derby races. As I observed the staging and outcome of these races, I saw cases where the fairness of the race could be questioned. As a result we implemented several improvements to minimize these cases. Eventually, with the acquisition of race management software, we moved away from an elimination method.

While the popularity of finish line electronics and race management software has made a dent in the number of races using an elimination method, it is still one of the most common methods for staging pinewood derby races. While I personally recommend using an alternate method, organizations will continue to use elimination methods far into the future.

So let’s dig further into this method of racing. We will first take a quick look at the basics of elimination methods, look at the pro and cons, and then see what can be done to improve this method of race staging.

The basic characteristic of an elimination method is that entrants are incrementally eliminated from the competition until only the winning entrants remain. Thus, in pinewood derby racing as the races progress, cars are eliminated from the competition, narrowing the field down to the fastest cars.

The most common elimination method is a double-elimination. In this type of race, a car stays in the competition until it has lost two times. However, other elimination methods can also be used. For example, in a single elimination race, cars are eliminated after one loss, while in a triple-elimination, cars are eliminated after three losses (three strikes, you’re out).

Elimination methods provide several advantages to race organizers – which we will see below. But elimination methods also have a clear appeal to the competitively-oriented mind of most humans. With elimination methods, since heats eliminate (or contribute to the elimination of) entrants, every heat is extremely important to the cars being raced. The audience tends to follow the event very closely to see which cars will prevail, and which will be eliminated (a bit like the gladiator events in the Roman Coliseum). This also has a down-side which will be discussed later.

Regardless of the audience appeal, here are three advantages of elimination methods to the race organizer:

1. Easy to Stage – Several methods exist for staging elimination races either manually or with a computer. The methods are generally easy to implement, thus minimizing pre-race effort.

2. Shorter Event Time – With an elimination method, the total number of heats is generally less than with a rotational method. Therefore, with efficient race staging, the overall length of the event can be shorter.

3. Facilitates Human Judging – While electronic finish lines are very valuable, races can be reasonably staged with human judges since only first place (or possibly first and second place) in each heat must be

However, there are several disadvantages to elimination methods:

1. Lane Bias – No track has lanes which are exactly the same; generally one lane will be the fastest and another the slowest. Cars which, by the luck of the draw, are placed on the slow track will be disadvantaged. A car racing on the slow lane can be eliminated even though it is faster than the car on the fast lane.

2. Low Accuracy Beyond First and Second – By definition, a single-elimination race can only accurately determine first place; double-elimination determines first and second place; triple-elimination the top three places. Why is this? Consider the fastest three cars in a double-elimination race. If the top three cars race together early, then the second and third-fastest cars will be moved to the loser’s bracket. If they then race each other again before the final heats, the third fastest car will be eliminated. Some other car will (in error) win the third place trophy.

Thus, if your organization runs a double-elimination and wishes to give out three speed trophies, additional racing must occur to determine third place (see IMPROVEMENTS for methods to allow three trophy winners with a double-elimination race).

3. Crowd Control – As cars are eliminated, owners of the eliminated cars tend to get bored, resulting in crowd control issues. By the way, this applies to both kids and their parents!

4. Minimal Race Time – Similarly, when a child and their parent spend significant time building a car, they would like the opportunity to see their car race as many times as possible. But with elimination methods, the slowest cars will only (officially) race two times. This can certainly be a downer.

How can improvements be made to address some of the disadvantages of elimination methods? The following are some ideas for you to consider.

1. Lane Bias – First, recognize that lanes are not equal. Therefore, make sure that Race officials don’t select which cars are placed on which lanes. When using a race chart, identify the lanes on the chart, and place cars into the chart using a randomization process, such as drawing car numbers out of a box. If you don’t use a race chart, but instead dynamically select lanes, randomize lane assign by drawing lane numbers. While this does not eliminate the problem with the lanes, it does eliminate any question as to whether an official was biased towards or against certain cars.

2. Low Accuracy Beyond First and Second – When using a double-elimination method, ensure that third place is awarded fairly by doing one of the following:

– After all heats have been run and first and second places have been determined, rerun all of the other cars to determine third. This method is not very exciting.

– Assuming you have a track of three or more lanes, in each heat keep the top two cars as ‘winners’, and the other car(s) as losers. Continue this process until only four cars remain. Eliminate one car. The remaining three are the trophy winners. Eliminate one more car – this is third place. Then race the two remaining cars to identify first and second place.

3. Crowd Control – To maintain interest, defer racing of the loser’s bracket for as long as possible. If you are using a race chart, try completing the winners bracket before running the loser’s bracket. If a chart is not used, then alternate back and forth, winners to losers, to keep everything in synch.

Another idea is to split the total group into several smaller groupings, then race the smaller groupings. Provide alternate activities for the groups which are not racing. If desired, the top finishers in each group can be raced to determine an overall winner.

4. Minimal Race Time – This cannot be completely resolved with elimination methods, but for small groups consider running a deeper elimination (e.g., triple or quadruple). For larger groups, provide a second track for ad hoc racing of eliminated cars (oftentimes the kids just want to race – they are less concerned about winning than the parents).

Improving the fairness of pinewood derby events is certainly an important consideration for the race officials. I encourage you to do take the extra effort to review your race method and make improvements wherever necessary to increase the fairness and fun for all participants.

From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 3, Issue 7
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