Pinewood Derby Times Volume 5, Issue 7

– Feature Article – Is it Cheating?
– Car Showcase
– Memory – Bitterroot Valley Derby
– Q&A

Is it Cheating?

This past year I received several e-mails relating situations where car builders were accused of cheating. In some cases the writer of the e-mail was certain that another parent had cheated, and in other cases the writer was accused of cheating.

In several of these cases, I disagreed with the accusation. I am certainly against cheating, but before an accusation of cheating can stand, there must be an understanding of the definition. According to the dictionary, to cheat is “To violate rules deliberately, as in a game”. Thus, for cheating to occur, the following must occur:

  1. Breaking a clearly documented rule,
  2. Deliberate act.

To put this into pinewood derby terms, for cheating to occur:

  1. There must be a clear, written set of rules governing the construction of the car,
  2. The car owner must knowingly violate a particular rule.

This may seem like a narrow view to some, but let me share some situations that will (hopefully) make this more clear.

The rules that come with the BSA Car kit and with the Awana Kit are notoriously vague. Many packs, districts, and councils have annotated these rules for their own use, but many others still use the rules in the box alone. This can lead to accusations of cheating when the interpretation of the rules in the box varies. Here is a case in point from a newsletter subscriber:

“Our pack had no printed rules other than those in the BSA kit. In addition, I was told by the pack leaders that the only rules were 7 inches long, 5 ounces maximum weight, and 3/8 inch ground clearance minimum. So, we put the car together and complied with these rules. We did use axle holes (instead of slots) and had a three wheel on the ground setup.
When the car was inspected at the race, the inspector said we should have used the slots on the bottom of the car so that the axles could be seen. This was the first we had heard of this rule. After a brief discussion with the officials we were allowed to race (our car, built in 2 days, was one of the shabbiest looking entered in the derby).
Well, the car won every heat in the den by at least 2 car lengths. Suddenly everyone was protesting our axle holes. One family in my son’s den had won the den and the overall pack race three years in a row and they were irate! The race officials conferred and we were told that we would have to cut axle slots in the car to be able to compete in the overall pack race. If we didn’t cut the slots we would be disqualified as the den champion! Knowing we were legal, we consented and pulled the wheels and cut the slots in the car. All of this was done with no alignment tools other than a credit card for wheel spacing. We were pressed for time and pushed the axles into the original holes that had been drilled into the body. The axles could now be seen, but the axles were only held in by friction, as we didn’t have any way to glue them in place …”(1)
(Edited and names removed to maintain anonymity)

What happened here? Did the car owner cheat? Did the previous champion have a valid issue? Were the race officials justified in their actions? In my opinion, the car owner followed the rules (there is no mention of axle holes or slots in the ‘Rules’ section of the paper in the BSA kit), the previous champion had no valid issue, and the officials should be ashamed of themselves for changing their previous ruling during the middle of the race.
Is this an isolated incident? I wish it were so. I receive numerous e-mails every year with a similar theme. Here is another one:

“My boy and I have been lucky enough to win three 1st Place trophies. I do own a very good drill press, and I built our own test track. But, my biggest challenges have been working with my son to understand all of it, patience to do it all, and, most of all, dealing with the aftermath of winning because he gets accused of cheating. After our first win he was not allowed to enjoy the good feelings that should have accompanied the 1st Place trophy. The judge – who actually inspected his car and approved it for racing – threatened to disqualify it after it won the first three heats (two of them were against his son). After the trophies were passed out, he informed both of us (loudly, and in front of all) that when we went to District that we would be disqualified if we left the graphite on the outside of our wheels. We weren’t, but most of the Moms and Dads who heard what he said told their boys that my son and I had cheated …”

Did cheating occur in this situation? The car evidently met the rules and was allowed to race with no issue. The victory was not due to a rule violation, but was due to the amount of time and effort put in by the parent/child team.(2) Clearly, the accusations had no merit and were just due to “sour grapes” on the part of the race official. What a display of childishness.

I could go on, but I believe the point is made. A different interpretation of a vague rule does not constitute cheating.

While the major source of cheating accusations is due to vague rules, it can also occur when people are unaware of the rules. This oftentimes happens to people who are new to pinewood derby racing, or have previously participated in the event in a different organization. The following can happen:

“We built a car for my Cub Scout’s pinewood derby race. We had previously raced in the Awana Grand Prix and had done quite well. So, we built a car using the same techniques (long wheelbase, three wheels on the ground, et al). At the pack we took 1st Place. But when we went to the district race, our car was disqualified because of the long wheelbase. Of course there was nothing we could do. Another member of the pack was at the district race and witnessed the disqualification. The boy told my son that we had cheated at the pack race …”

Was this cheating? Apparently the long wheelbase car was acceptable at the pack race so there was no cheating at that event. Since the car violated the district rules, it was rightfully disqualified. Since the car never raced at the district, the car owner certainly couldn’t be accused of cheating. Too bad that the district and pack rules were not synched up.

A slightly different scenario can also occur: a car violates the rules, but the violation is not caught at inspection. Later – usually when the car does well in the heats – the violation is detected and the owner is accused of cheating. This is a more difficult situation that can take on two flavors:

  1. The rule violation was obvious, but for some reason was missed, or
  2. The rule violation was hidden, but somehow became known during the race.

Let me provide an example for each. These situations do arise, so officials should be prepared with a response.

  1. The rules specify that the car must ride on all 4 wheels. A car is entered with only three wheels on the ground (a very easy thing to unintentionally do). The violation is not detected. Later, while the car is being staged, the starter notices the violation. Should the car be disqualified? Is it cheating?
  2. The rules specify that no moving parts are allowed except for the wheels. During a heat, a car crashes and mercury comes spilling out (this actually occurred in early 2004 at a BSA race in Kansas). Was this cheating?

In case 1, in the highest likelihood the violation was unintentional. The owners would have had every reason to believe that the violation would be detected at the inspection, so to intentionally attempt the illegal technique would have been pure foolishness. What should be done when the illegality was detected in the race? In my opinion, since the car passed inspection and was allowed to race, no action should be taken. The car should be allowed to continue racing. The pack should make sure to improve their car inspection check list before the next derby event.

In case 2, cheating may or may not have occurred. It is possible that the parent did not consider mercury a “moving part”, and equally as possible that the parent knew, but gambled that it would not be detected (of course in either case, the parent showed highly questionable thinking by using a highly toxic substance in the car). Since the rules specified no moving parts, and since the detection of the mercury would have been difficult at inspection, I recommend disqualifying the car. The situation would be the same if during the race a wheel came off and it was found that a hidden bearing or bushing was used, or that illegal axles were used.

Clearly, this is a gray area, so to avoid problems and legislating from the bench, set a policy ahead of time as to how to respond to illegalities found after inspection.

Certainly, cheating does occur. But to avoid false accusations make sure there are clear rules in place, and there is clear intent to violate a rule. Remember also that pinewood derby racing is a child-oriented activity. Parents, keep it fun by avoiding unnecessary conflict.

1The car ended up taking 2nd Place in the pack.

2Consistent winners are oftentimes accused of cheating, especially if their car is significantly faster than other cars. While it is possible that some illegal technique is being used, more likely they know all the speed techniques, are taking every possible advantage offered by the rules, and put a lot of time into constructing the car. Working smart and working hard generally pay off.

Pinewood Derby Car Showcase

F-15: Philip & Joshua Huffman

Our family made four cars this year, three of which were entered in the outlaw division and came in the top 10. My son Joshua’s F-15 car was the only one entered in the scout race. His car was our test bed for using the full range of Pro-Tools and other supplies. The results? Joshua won first in pack, first in district, and first in council! Moreover, on every run he set a new track record. We’re making plans now for our 2006 entries. Wish us luck!

The Iguana: Brenda & Alex Wight

Alex wanted his car to stand out this year; and it certainly did! First, he did as he’s done the past few years; he looked on your web site for some inspiration. Alex said he wanted to go in a different direction from the usual, when he spotted a car that resembled a reptile. With a bit of brainstorming, he began his drawings of what was to become “The Iguana.”

Alex presented his rough drawings to his pack leader – a lady that has taken on 12 active boys, and is married to a guy that’s as handy with power tools as she is in handling her pack of scouts. He chiseled the block of wood under the careful scrutiny of my son, into the stream lined drawing Alex had sketched onto paper.
With his iguana in the rough, Alex sanded, sanded and then sanded some more. He brush painted layers of just the right green, layered some darker greens to give it the illusion of reptile skin, and decided to go with bright yellow feet, legs and tail. The jagged back was formed out of modeling clay, snipped with scissors, and glued into place.

The Iguana Car, although sleek in design, wasn’t much of a racer. One could say it was built for looks, not for speed. It traveled well down the track – even when placed backwards – and came in second during a three race heat, but just didn’t make the cut. Not placing in the race didn’t seem to bother Alex in the least. After all, it’s the excitement of the design that thrills him. I can’t wait to see what he’ll come up with this year!

Pinewood Derby Memory
Bitterroot Valley Derby

This year at the Second Annual BitterRodders Street Rod Car Show – held in conjunction with the Bitterroot Valley Chamber of Commerce Annual Daly Days Celebration in Hamilton, Montana – there was a pinewood derby event open to racers of all ages. The event was the idea of one of the Main Street merchants, where the activities centered for two days in late July. There were four awards: Fastest, Slowest, Best Design & Best Decorated.

The Merchant, ‘Me & Moms’, along with the Chamber of Commerce offered 48 Pinewood Derby Kits to any entrant for a $5.00 donation. The BitterRodders Car Club provided the use of their old 28 foot long, constant incline, valve cover racing ramp (two lanes with side rails, no center guide) as a track. Rules were as provided in the kits – weight, length, width, etc.

There were race cars of all description; everything from super sleek, to a block with wheels right out of the box, to a block wrapped inside a shortened plastic beer bottle! There weren’t any like those we helped our son and grandson build years ago. Building our race cars stirred up some really fond pinewood derby memories and sent us scrambling to the Internet for current information and tips.

As 66 year-old members of the BitterRodders Car Club my entry was the beer bottle, designed with friction brakes to win the slowest trophy. It never saw the finish line I am told. My wife’s entry was a super sleek racer with a rear wing and American Flag paint job (actually decal), a Yellow Ribbon on the nose for our troops abroad, and a Kokopelli riding atop the wing going for the win.

Unfortunately for us, due to a death in our family that week, we had to go out of town. However, we left our entries in the capable hands of a couple of children of club members to race for us in our absence.

On race day the ramp was set up early in front of the Post Office on Main Street and opened for trial runs. The business portion of Main Street in Hamilton, Montana is four blocks long. Reports have it that my beer bottle racer was “soooo” slow it actually came to an embarrassing halt before crossing the finish line and was disqualified. It is really harder to build a car to go slow, although I understand a number of first timers were in the running!

My wife’s entry, however, is another story. Without a center guide strip, the young lady who raced it for her had to line the racer up aimed at the left side rail about half way down the ramp. The mis-alignment gave the built for speed racer a long gradual right hand slice. With practice and perseverance the car made a lightning dash from start to finish, making it the “fastest by a long shot” the proud racer proclaimed. She got the fastest trophy to take home with her.

We are sorry we had to miss the first annual event, but it was well received and they plan on having it again next year. We hope it remains noncompetitive, and open to all for the sheer fun of it! My wife sure plans on being there to defend the title, and I am going to back off the brakes on the beer bottle a bit. Who would have ever thought at our age we would be so excited about Pinewood Derby racing again.

Jimmy & Patsy Maddox


This year after the axle polishing step, we are thinking of using a plastic pen cap (or the like) to try to burnish some graphite onto the axle. Last year we burnished graphite into the inside of the wheel hub (by rolling the wheel back and forth with a plastic rod). Seemed to work out well. What do you think about the axle burnishing idea? Seems like it can’t hurt.

I doubt it would hurt, but it would be unlikely to help. I believe that burnishing the wheel bore works because the plastic material is soft enough for the graphite to embed into the pores of the material. But since the axles are made of steel, they are really too hard for any graphite to get into the pores of the material.

Is it typical to have to realign a car between races (such as pack and district)?

You should certainly check the alignment between races, as adjustments could be needed. Oftentimes, the stop section of the track is quite aggressive, and cars can be mishandled, both of which can knock off the alignment.

Are there different techniques for running on a track without a raised center versus one with a raised center?

With center guide tracks, make sure the inside edge of the wheels are polished smooth, and nothing hangs too low below the car. For outside guide tracks, make sure the outside of the wheels (the part of the wheel that will rub on the guide rails) are polished smooth. For example, on BSA wheels – if allowed by the rules – remove the tread serrations.

Want Answers?
Do you have a pinewood derby-related question? If so, e-mail us your question.We answer all questions by e-mail, but not every question will appear in the Q&A section of the newsletter.

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