(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Pinewood Derby, Part II

Last night was the big night for our Pack, the Super Bowl of the Cub Scouts' season, and, quite frankly, I didn't know what to expect. All I knew was that my son's group had to be there by 20 of 7 so that we could have the cars weighed and measured. After that, they would be placed on a table with numbers before them, so that the kids in the group (Tiger Cubs) could vote on which car was the best looking. After the vote, they were to take their cars into the elementary school's gym, place them on another table, and then wait for their races to be called.

Going into the evening, we had a few modest objectives. First, we hoped that the car stayed together. While I had full faith and confidence in the den mother's husband (who affixed the wheels), he had cautioned me a few days before the race that our efforts using a flathead screwdriver to clear primer and paint out of the axle slots might have widened them a bit, thereby creating the possibility that the pins could fall out. Based upon his suggestion, I borrowed my neighbor's wood epoxy and put it on the rear axle slots over the pins, so as to keep them in place. I did that late on Thursday night. Second, we hoped that the car would finish the race. Plain and simple, those were our goals.

The entire family went to the local elementary school at the appointed time. The car fit well within the measurement requirements, and it weighed it at 4.9 ounces (some friends' weighed in at 4.7 and 4.4, respectively, but I prided myself on weighting the car within about 0.5 grams of 5 ounces, or roughly at 4.92 ounces). I had applied powdered graphite to the wheels (to help make them go faster), and we placed my son's car on the table for balloting. His wasn't the nicest looking car, but it definitely looked like a seven year-old had painted it (another boy, with a car that looked like a model Parnelli Jones raced over 50 years ago, won the award for best-looking). For good luck we put a number 6 on it, representing, of course, his fealty toward the National League's MVP, Ryan Howard. After the balloting, the kids carried their cars into the gym. I made sure my son carried his wheels up, so as not to mess with the alignment.

There were about 13 Tiger Cubs racing, and my son was in the third pairing. Now, if you're among the uninitiated, you have to understand that this is a sophisticated setup. The cars start on a curved ramp that's about 4 feet in the air (imagine a Hot Wheels setup from years ago). The packmaster releases a lever, and then the cars go hurtling down the track (I can't tell you how long it is, but it runs about 3/4 of the width of an elementary school basketball court). There's an electronic finish line which measures the cars' speed to the hundredth of a second. Then a dad gets that information and records it on a spreadsheet, where then the winners can be selected. Pretty sophisticated stuff, huh?

So there we were, waiting for the race, and my son drew Lane 2. They put his red car into the slot, and mom, sister and I held our breaths. How would this car fare? Would the wheels stay on? Was the weighting right (in that it wasn't too far to the front, which would have caused the car to bang into the sides of his lane)? He and a friend from his den were paired against each other, and they both sat excitedly near the finish line after their names were called. The Pack master released the lever, and the cars were off.

And my son's red car hurtled down the track at pretty good speed. It didn't bang into the sides, and the wheels operated just fine. The car pulled several lengths ahead of his opponent's car about 2/3 of the way down the track, won by about 3 lengths and logged a time of approximately 3.32 seconds. That was our car, the car that the village helped raise. Of course, it was the weighting and the design that enabled its victory (i.e., the stuff we had something to do with, right?).

Then they raced again, switching lanes. Again, both cars got out of the start well, only this time the other car beat my son's car by about 3/4 of a length, perhaps 1 length. Interesting, the car logged an almost identical 3.32 seconds as its time (many cars' times throughout the night differed by about 0.4 seconds from one lane to the next). So, with our cumulative time of about 6.64 seconds, we watched the other cars compete against each other. We also watched the spreadsheet, which was up on the projector. We couldn't tell precisely how my son's entry was faring, but we knew it showed respectably, and that's all we cared. As an added bonus, one of his friends had to go last, and because there was an odd number of Tiger Cubs competing, he was permitted to pick fellow Tiger Cub to race against. He picked my son's car, and the times didn't count for his entry (as he already raced). The joy on those two boys' faces was something to behold. It was more important to them that their cars were racing one another than who won those races.

The creativity of the entries was terrific. There was a shark, a police car, an I-Pod and an eraser, among other things. There were cards with funky stickers, cards with plastic men, cars that looked like bullets or cigar tubes, cars that looked like wedges and cars that seemed to be made out of only one half of the block of wood we were given. The fasted time that I saw that night was about 3.0 seconds, and that was, comparatively, lightning fast. Parents were all over the gym, as were some of the school teachers, who came back to watch. It was a celebration of creativity and community, and I for one learned a great deal and can't wait to help my son with his car next year.

After the Tiger Cubs raced, the kids went to the rear of the gym for the awards ceremony. Each kid received a medal after he raced, and each kid was to receive a trophy. The top three cars in the category were to advance to the county races in March (and have their cars impounded by the Pack so that they could not be worked on further). And when the awards were announced, we were surprised -- my son's car, the one that the village helped with, the one with the uneven paint job, the one that I probably primed too much, the one with the widened axle slots, the one shaped like a Formula 1 car -- came in third place. It's off to the county races, this in our first year.

How did this happen? I haven't the foggiest idea. The son of the Assistant Pack Master, whose wife gave us some tips and provided us with paint, didn't come in the top half of his group, despite having a really cool car and being just a great kid. Another Assistant Pack Master's kid had the lightning fast car that I mentioned, and the times his that group were just amazing. The son of our den mother, whose husband graciously helped set our wheels, didn't place either. He, too, had a great-looking car. And that made me think . . .

All of these kids won because of what they did and what they participated in. The older kids could do more with their cars than the younger ones, true, but not all Cub Scouts elected to participate in this, and the whole event last night was a celebration of good things in life. Making a car, going to an event, having it staged like it's a big-time affair, being with your family, being with your friends, having a teacher or two stop by to watch and take photos, siblings being invited, parents filling a variety of roles. Yes, there had to be cars that had the best times, but that's an afterthought, really, as the experience is what mattered.

Some took to this project better than others, some just got it out of the way. Some entries looked more like kids made their cars than others. Many kids were already talking about next year. They sat wide-eyed looking at how fast their cars could go, and they marveled at the creativity of some cars. My son talked to me this morning about his paint job and about the need to put a little man in his car. It was a fun conversation.

As I said, when I got into this event I didn't know what to think. And, yes, I am somewhat craft-challenged, but we used this year as an opportunity to learn how to do it ourselves, and we're convinced that except for the cutting, we'll be able to do this ourselves next year.

It was a great event!

And we can't wait until next year.


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