Design Matters – Pinewood Derby

Bjella Pinewood Derby 2015 - 2

This was our third year competing in the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby. Once again as expected, Team Bjella came in DEAD LAST. Apparently aerodynamics have some sort of effect on the outcome 😉 .

Even finishing last, we WERE the winners (especially Beck, king of the band saw, with all of his fingers still on the correct hands). Then again, so was every other team who spent time together building a car. You can’t put a price on that. This is one case where “we’re all winners” is actually true.

The derby has changed since its inception so many years ago. Every year the winning car is virtually identical to the past year’s winner. It is a 1/2 inch flat wedge with minimal wind resistance and optimal weight distribution. The wheels and axles are tuned using micrometers and possibly electron microscopes. The contest is an exercise in precision engineering. Gone are the days when kids competed against other kids with fun cars. Now the dads compete against other dads because the kids don’t have the skills, tools or patience to do such precision work themselves.

Beck is now nine. Each year we build a car together, with his contribution growing. This year he built about seventy percent of the car – cutting, drilling painting and gluing (we split the fun 50:50, though). Starting with our very first car, we decided to design and build fun cars, not fast cars, figuring the car will spend far more time displayed on Beck’s shelf than crossing a finish line. It ought to look cool! Neither of us wanted to spend endless, tedious hours tapering axles, calculating friction coefficients and refining performance characteristics (plus we didn’t have the security credentials necessary for access to the top secret derby workshops).

As a fringe benefit, I believe we have raised the bar for the troop. They have come to expect a cool car from Beck and now actively compete to beat his car. This year showed a noticeable effort by the other scouts to make fun cars. I think we have had an impact. Now the pressure is on to come up with a concept for next year!

Bjella Pinewood Derby 2015

Bjella Pinewood Derby 2014

The car above is our second year entry.

Bjella Pinewood Derby 2013

Bjella Pinewood Derby 2013-2

After competing in the Pinewood Derby for the first time (car shown above), I posted the following to Facebook:

It was Beck’s first Cub Scout pinewood derby last week. To my dismay, the first thing we saw upon entering the event was a table overflowing with a hundred trophies. Yep, everyone was going to be a winner! I consoled myself that at least we had finally reached the bottom and could sink no further in our societal goal of cheapening achievement.

But then, lo and behold, the announcer lifted his microphone and said: “Hey everyone, make sure you stop by the big box next to the door, it has leftover trophies from prior years, so if you want a few more just grab them on your way out.” If you thought a trophy couldn’t be worth less than zero, turns out you were wrong.

Explaining to a six-year old the meaning of competition, winning, and more importantly losing, was not as daunting as I had feared. A trophy is meaningless unless it is earned. Beck had fun even though his car came in dead last every heat. He was a little disappointed until he won the “Best Design” award, of which there was, thankfully, only one!

For me, the highlight of the day was when, as we were leaving, he asked, “Daddy, would please carry the trophy I EARNED?”

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Tim Bjella

Principal architect and interior designer for Arteriors / Bjella Architecture.

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