How Has Pinewood Derby Racing Changed? – Part 1

With pinewood derby racing being over fifty years old, I began to wonder how the event has changed. These years have brought overwhelming changes in technology, as well as broad societal changes. Has pinewood derby racing been positively or negatively affected by these changes?

To answer this question I sent out a questionnaire to a number of pinewood derby enthusiasts and have compiled their responses. Today’s article contains the questions, a short summary of the responses, as a well as some quotes from the participants that captures the essence of the responses.

I want to personally thank each of the people that responded for taking the time to capture their thought. I trust that you will find their input interesting and informative.

1. How many years have you been involved in pinewood derby racing?

Most responses ranged from six years to eighteen years.

Bill Launius – I participated in the pinewood derby myself as a scout; it was a highlight of the scouting year for my dad and me. My son became involved in scouting 3 years ago and it started all over again for me.

Don Murphy – From 1952 to 1955 my son was in Cub Scouts, and we held the first pinewood derby. Then I wasn’t involved again until 1997 when Gary McAulay (who had taken over my cub pack) discovered I was still around.

Michael Lastufka – We first moved to Texas and attended a church that had an annual Awana Grand Prix nine years ago. In the three years prior to that move, we’d seen only one Awana Grand Prix race in California, though our children attended two different clubs. The track we saw had three consecutively smaller hills on it. They couldn’t find a place to store it and by the time my oldest could participate, it was ruined by weather, and there was no race.

2. What is the most significant change that has occurred to pinewood derby racing?

The most common response was the Internet, followed by Electronic Finish Lines (although the first race in 1953 had an electric finish line), modern tracks, and race software. There are more comments on some of these later in the article.

John Shreffler – High tech tracks are important, and electronic finish lines are almost a must. But the most significant improvement in my opinion is the creation of software packages that run the entire derby, such as RaceView, DerbyMaster, and GrandPrix Race Manager. These have taken the focus away from the adults bumbling their way through the grease pencils and charts on tripods, and put the focus on the scouts and their cars, where it belongs.

Randy Lisano – There are lots of things that have made an impact, but I would say that the Internet has had the most significant impact on pinewood derby racing. It is a great medium to share knowledge on how to build the cars and coordinate the races. This helps race coordinators put on a fair and fun event and helps racers to learn the ‘secrets’ that might otherwise be limited to just a few racers. It is also a great place to order race equipment and supplies and car building supplies.

Michael Lastufka – With the Internet, it has become much easier to find out how to make a good, fast car, and there are products, information and forums for coordinators and experimenters. Our first year’s car designs centered on a couple of physics concepts I thought might be important. We couldn’t get the kind of information from people (parents) we needed. Either they didn’t want to give out their ‘secrets’ or they really didn’t understand why it was they had done well in the past. When one of our “naive” cars placed, I had to conclude they really didn’t know any more than we did.

3. How have electronic finish lines and computer scoring affected the event?

Overwhelmingly, electronic finish lines and computer scoring are viewed positively. Comments included: more accuracy, less arguing, and faster heats (crowd stays more engaged and less overall time for the event). There were comments about possible inaccuracy of these devices, and some concern with cumulative time scoring methods, but no one was willing to give them up. I thought you would enjoy this anecdote.

John Shreffler – My son was a cub from ’86 to ’88. The first year, I was picked out of the audience as a pinewood derby Judge, along with another Dad. We quickly found out that it was not easy, and in a quick hushed conversation, we agreed that it was more important to be decisive than perfect.

I was an electronic engineer, and in my spare time before the next year’s race, I put together a device that picked the winner of three lanes. It was a big improvement and went over better than sliced bread.

The third year, I brought it back with a suggestion for a racing scheme that was somewhat like the double elimination that is one of the standards many packs use. When my son moved on, the scout leader came back every year to see if he could borrow the system, and I finally just give it to him.

In 1992, I was out of a job, and thought about that system in a more serious light. I designed it to do the finishing order of all three lanes, and for mass production. I took a deep breath, ordered parts for 100 and bought a small ad in Scouting Magazine. The Judge was born. I was scared. But within 6 weeks, I sold every one.

The next year, I expanded to 2 and 4 Lanes. I doubled the inventory, but again I was sold out before the season ended. In 1997, I got a web page and it went from an amusing sideline to a real business. In two more years, I never went back to working full time for others.

4. How has changes in our society affected the event (2-income families, hectic schedule, ease of purchasing parts)?

Several people indicated that the fast pace of life has limited participation, but Cory Young pointed out: I seem to remember always hearing my Mom say, “There’s just not enough hours in the day!” Things were busy back then, too. Some additional comments:

Randy Lisano – There are probably less dads helping their kids build the cars today than in years past, but I have seen moms, leaders and other adults stepping up to help. With people’s lives so busy, it has meant that many kids have not been able to participate at all, which is a shame.

Michael Lastufka – A few large families have cited cost as a reason for not racing, but many more say they are too wrapped up in other things. Some always prove it by buying the kits but not showing up at the event because something came up. Then there are always those who make a point to tell everyone that they built the car the night before!

(To be continued)

From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 4, Issue 12
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