Five Hundredths of a Second

Pinewood Derby racing is not what it used to be. I was Cub Scout and well remember the hours of labor my Dad and I poured into the two cars I made in my career. They were always big events looked forward to by the whole Pack. That part hasn’t changed. What has changed is the addition of technology to the race.

A couple years ago Isaac’s Pack held its annual Derby. I was surprised to see the guys running lengths of wire back and forth along the track. There was another guy with his laptop computer entering the names and ages of all the boys. I thought to myself, “What are these guys doing? Do we really need all this?”

Apparently one of the computer-savvy Dads had written a program to tabulate all the information about each boy and his car. In addition there was a digital timer at the finish line, measuring the time of each race to the hundredth of a second. At the beginning of each “heat” the names and lanes of each of the four participating boys were listed via power point on a big screen behind the start line. At the completion the times and victors were recorded, again, to the hundredth of a second.

It was a lot of extra (unnecessary?) work, but it added a new dimension to a time-honored race. Apparently someone has since marketed a standardized “Pinewood Derby Racing Program” anyone can load up on their laptop. Packs also have the option to buy the electronic timing devices so essential for maximum race enjoyment.

This past week we were participating in yet another Pinewood Derby, only it was called the AWANA Grand Prix. The folks at AWANA (a weekly Christian club for kiddos) have borrowed the whole Pinewood concept from the Scouts and now have their own annual race, complete with the electronic timing devices. There was no overhead display and we had to settle for “Pastor Blake” shouting the entrants over the loudspeaker system.

Jessie, David and Elisabeth were participating in this year’s race. We were told early on that we could use Cub Scout Pinewood Derby cars for the race if we wanted to. We’ve got a stock-pile of them in the boy’s closet. So, Jessie and David picked their favorites. Isaac assured Jessie, “This one is a fast car and it turned out it was.”

Elisabeth had been interested in building a car for several years, having watched her brothers go through the time-honored ordeal. Mercifully she told me, “I just want it to be a solid block. We can paint it pink.”

“You don’t want to make it into something?” I said excitedly.

No, just a block is fine.

In the early years of car building I would patiently teach the boys to make their own sketches doing a top view and a side view before doing any cutting. They were equally patient with me and did their best to perform the necessary tasks. Later, I decided to allow them complete creative control. Isaac and Benjamin would launch into the project with a hammer and chisel in hand and no plans whatsoever. They would hack a couple of chunks out of the block of wood and declare it finished.

“Are you sure you’re done?”

“Yeah, I like it.”

“You don’t want to do any sanding on it?”

“No, I think we’ll just paint it.”

“Are you really sure you don’t want to do anything else to the car?” I said.

“No, where’s the spray paint?”

Suffice it to say that I had to swallow my pride when the boys lined up their rolling hunks next to these hand sculpted works of art with glistening body shop paint jobs.

One year Benjamin called his creation “Doom Buggy.” I thought it was aptly named.

The performance of their work was predictable. We were never last, but we rarely “placed” in the top 10%.

As usual at these events, it was a mob scene with children and parents crowded around the track and organizers shouting at everyone to stand back, knowing all too well that one slip on the track would mean the end of the event for everyone. The events are as much about endurance as they are about the actual competition. You just have to wait until your child has his or her turn; there is no way to hurry things along.

However, the wait is rewarded when your child’s name is called out and their car placed lovingly at the top of the track. Shoosh…they roll down the track, heads turning in unison as the swish past.

Generally the winner is obvious, as well as the loser, who often has to pick up the pieces of the car scattered along the track. But, as in all racing there are “close calls.” In my day it was left up to two Dads who stood over the track at the finish line to declare a winner. Today’s races are decided by the clock, fair and square, each car’s time measured to the hundredth of a second.

Jessie’s car, true to Isaac’s prediction, was running well, turning in consistent times of 2:51-2:54 seconds. She won, or placed second in several races; she was thrilled and so was I.

David and Elisabeth did well too. That is to say, they weren’t last. They ended up somewhere in the middle of the pack and finished with a respectable “Participation Award.” They were almost as pleased as Jessie. It was exciting to watch them all race and it made it worth the long wait to see them.

Jessie’s car was good enough to make it to the finals. I knew she wouldn’t win; the other cars had consistent times below the 2.5 second mark. However, the excitement was still high. She lost by five hundredths of a second and took home a third place trophy for her age group. She was thrilled.

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