Our church ward has a fun annual tradition in which we participated on Saturday: a Pinewood Derby for grown-ups. Even though we haven’t been here for long enough to have attended last year, I volunteered to help organize this year’s event. It wasn’t too hard–we asked everyone to bring a pot luck dish, and people with more experience than me did most of the setup and race operations. They did a great job, and some angelic mothers and wives cleaned up, mostly unnoticed by the men and children crowding around the track.
Jenny encouraged me to build a car, especially since I was helping to coordinate the event. I bought a basic wedge-shaped block for my base, and decided not to modify it very much. Using a utility knife, multipurpose rasp, and sandpaper I shaped it into an airfoil. I don’t think the shape was a factor in the car’s performance. Really, I went with the design as an homage to a solar car I remember being fascinated by at about the same age when I first competed in a pinewood derby.
Jenny and Elena came for dinner and to visit with friends, but as soon as Elena saw the racing she wanted to participate. According to the rules, the car owner is supposed to place the car on the track and recover it from the finish line after it races, placing it on the car table (no modifications are allowed once racing has started). After Elena saw me do that the first time, she insisted on helping for the remaining heats and runoffs. She even started calling it “my car.” With so many entries, we had some long waits in between our races, and she kept saying “more race!” (She even emphasized her point by making the baby sign for more.)
I remember my favorite boyhood pinewood derby car. It had a cool, curved profile and a “window” hole drilled from one side to the other. I painted it white with a single black racing stripe. In order to get up to the maximum racing weight, all cars have to have weights added, but we did so by putting them in drilled hole and concealing it so they wouldn’t show. Working on that car is one of my earliest and fondest memories of doing a project together with my father. We had good success with it–I think we placed second in our pack, and got to race in the regional competition.
Back to the story at hand: whenever our car was in the race, we got to watch from next to the finish line, inside the barrier tables. Elena always cheered when our car crossed the line. I’m not sure she understands the concept of winning, but I certainly noticed that we were first in three of our four heats and came in second in the other, which was good enough to get into the runoffs. She liked that because it meant that we got to do more races. We made it all the way to the finals, where we came in third behind two worthy competitors and just ahead of the fourth. It was a great showing; next year I might put more effort into it to see if we can improve our standing.
It’s easy to figure out what let to my success, aside from Elena’s magic touch. My design was nothing special, and my paint job was horribly botched–I left it until the day of the race, so I cut some corners in drying time and paid the price in smudges and smears. I was too cheap to buy weights, which is why I stapled all the washers to the body, and still didn’t come close to the maximum permissible weight. Transferring my intuition from cycling, I focused on the most important factor–the wheels. Jenny bought me a tuning kit that I used to sand the axles and wheels until they were nice and smooth (but still within the official regulations). It also included graphite powder, the only permissible lubricant–I remember my dad using it to speed up my car when I was a Cub Scout. All in all, it made for a good performance, and a wonderful evening. Congratulations to all the participants!