Monday, January 17, 2011

I might not have the winning Pinewood Derby tips, but we didn't completely embarrass ourselves

Yesterday, my son, AKA "BHo", entered the ranks of competitive auto racing. No, there were no fiery crashes or serious injuries, but he was able to run head-to-head in an all-out battle for supremacy on a 45-foot, four-lane track of hell known as the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby.

In a way, BHo is lucky we even made it there at all. His bonehead crew chief and father almost botched the dates. I thought we had like another month to get the car built, and my wife said something like, "when are you going to work on that car?" on Saturday. To add to the situation, I was leaving Sunday to go to the Detroit Auto Show, and wouldn't be back until late Wednesday night. Nothing like adding a little drama to the festivities.

We decided to make the car look like a short track Modified, similar to what you might see running at Lakeside Speedway. And as luck would have it, the guy who prints the souvenir programs at Lakeside, Ron Haw of Picture Me Racing, let us use his bandsaw for a quick body shaping.

What I started to learn pretty quickly is that there are a lot of guys around who claim to know every secret to winning a Pinewood Derby. The guy at Lowes, co-workers, and friends, all had some connection with a car that no one could touch. I was lucky to have so many acquaintances that dominated their Pinewood Derby events.

It was a lot of information to process, and we realistically only had about two nights to put it all together. Plus, in spite of my inability to read a calendar, I wanted BHo to have as much to do with this as possible. And it turns out, he's not a bad car builder. He ran the Mouse sander, did some nice hand sanding ("do I really have to keep sanding? It seems pretty smooth to me!"), and even laid down his first rattle can paintjob. He also picked out decals and stickers from my model stash, and got it all looking sweet.

So then, my job was focusing on how to get this baby down the track fast enough that it didn't embarrass him. And really, my wife provided the two tools necessary to get that done--an accurate mail scale, and a Dremel tool.

Since we were trying to build a car that looked like something, and not just a flat, dominating speed wedge, weight was really an issue. If you go over 5-oz, you don't qualify, and you don't want to have to work on weight problems at the check-in. So we were weighing every bit and piece of that car long before we assembled anything.

I hogged out a big space under the car toward the rear, and stacked two-screw metal mending plates as the main weight source. They seemed like nice even weight, and I could remove or add to them if our scale was off. Ultimately, our car was 4.9-oz, which built in an additional margin of error.

The other thing the experts seemed to agree on was that the axles needed to be prepped. That's where the Dremel really came in handy. I was able to file off all the burrs, sand with varying degrees or paper, and finish with rubbing compound and the chrome polish I use on my Impala wheels, for some nice, smooth, shiny axles. I also filled the wheel up with graphite, re-chucked the axle with the wheel attached, and spun the axle in the wheel to embed the graphite.

I was afraid to re-drill the axle holes, even though the experts all say you need to do that to get the car to run straight. I figured I'd just booger up everything if I tried. So instead, BHo and I rolled the finished car back & fourth on the kitchen floor about 30-times. Then I'd just tweak the axles until it didn't pull to one side anymore.

In the end, we didn't do too bad. BHo's car easily won in his den of about ten kids. He came in second among all the 25-30 Tiger Cubs there. He actually beat the kid who came in first a couple of times to the line, but then for some reason, BHo's car didn't take to the lane in the last race, and it slowed him down quite a bit. They rank them based on an average speed of four runs. BHo's car ended up with exactly the same speed as the guy that won, so they went to time for the tiebreaker. BHo's time was .01-second slower, so he came in second. He was so close to moving on to the regional championships--but it was not meant to be.

BHo also took home a trophy for "Sportiest Car Design". I'm actually happier about that award than the others, because the appearance of his car was truly a joint effort, and he had a hand in that the entire way. He's got an artistic eye and nice skills, and they paid off there.

I'd say the Pinewood Derby was the most fun thing either of us have participated in so far with Cub Scouts. We were able to make something competitive together, he really seemed to take an interest in many parts of the build, and he has a neat car and some awards that he'll enjoy for the rest of his life.

If only we could have squeezed out that .01-second ... what might have been.

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