Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Pinewood Derby

Son Number Two is a builder. He started with Legos, but long ago abandoned them in favor of my Dewalt driver drill and 4 x 8 sheets of plywood. He has his own tool belt. His favorite Christmas gift this year was a Home Depot gift card. He buys construction screws in bulk.

He builds mostly weapons and shelters. He would have been a good medieval villager. He has a “fort” on the side of our house – fully visible from the street, so as to curry favor with our neighbors – made of OSB plywood, discarded fence wood, and random 2 x 4’s. It looks like an Afghan refugee camp from the outside, but inside it has furniture and running water, which most Afghan refugees would probably love. Come to think of it, his fort might actually have an afghan inside since he also crochets.

So, when our neighbor came over and asked if he would like to compete in their cub scout troop’s annual Pinewood Derby race, he naturally said, “What’s a Pinewood Derby?” After they explained that you built a car and raced it, he was all in. He was slightly less enthusiastic later when I explained that he wasn’t allowed to add a motor to the car, but he got over it and remained adequately enthused.

We have never been involved in scouting, but we did see the movie Down and Derby, so we were already alert to some of the tendencies of dads to take over the project, to the detriment of the child’s overall experience. No way was I going to make that mistake! As a recovering engineer, I would definitely need to refrain from interjecting myself into the design of his car. I would help with the cutting of his wood block, but past that, I’d let him do all the work.

After discussing his plans with him, it turned out he was only planning on sanding, painting, nailing, and gluing. When I asked about his plans for 3D prototype printing, honing, powder coating, dynamic balancing, and wind tunnel testing, he just stared at me blankly. It was his project, so I let it go.

One minor area I helped with was reading the instruction sheet. He was given an official Pinewood Derby kit, with all the materials included he would need to build the car. Immediately sensing the piece of paper with all the annoying words was useless, he tossed it aside and got right to work. I had a feeling that whoever bothered to type the words on the paper might know a little more about the Pinewood Derby rules and car specs than us, so I retrieved it from the garage floor, making an old man noise as I bent down, as is my custom, and read the instructions.

You are allowed (and encouraged) to sand your axles down for less wheel friction. Since the axles provided were basically just nails, I seconded the encouragement to sand them down. He sanded for a few minutes and got bored. I tried to explain the disastrous negative effects on forward gliding motion as a result of increased wheel bearing friction to him, but he just shrugged. I found some time to sand in the evenings.

The car can’t be longer than 7 inches. He drew his car-shaped design on the side of the pinewood block provided in the kit, and asked me to cut it out. I told him no way I would consent to cut it out, because his design was less than 7 inches long. Why would you shorten a car that is supposed to go fast? Who does that?

Once we had a 7.000-inch-long car cut out, it was time to think about where to mount the axles and wheels. The car came with standard slots for the axle nails, and guess what? Captain Derby wanted to use those. Hello?? McFly??? The rules state that you could increase the wheelbase, as long as the wheels don’t stick out past either end of the car. Why would you use the shorter wheel base? Are you trying to lose? We will of course be drilling new axle holes for the longest wheel base possible.

You can only use dry lubricant on the axles. He asked me if we had any and I said no. He just shrugged and said, “I guess we won’t use any then.”

What? Are you crazy? No lubricant? Didn’t it ever occur to you that we could go online and order a special aircraft-grade Teflon/graphite blend, guaranteed to obliterate the standard dry metal-on-plastic coefficient of friction, from a custom dry lubricant manufacturer in Dayton, Ohio? What the hell are they teaching you in the sixth grade?

The car is allowed (and encouraged) to be painted. He just wanted to use spray paint from the garage shelf. Well, that sounds like a great way to lose. Why don’t we just put glue and feathers all over the outside to slow it down even more? No, we’ll be getting a three-part acrylic resin underlayment with an epoxy top coating that we can buff to a mirror shine. You go to bed, I’ll handle the fourth and fifth coats.

The car can’t weigh more than 5 ounces. When I explained that you wanted it as heavy as possible, he actually said, “We’ll just get close.” Good call, son. Maybe when we drive to the race, we can just get close, but not actually go inside. Not only do we need to be 5.0000 ounces on race night, but we need to run a whole battery of tests to decide proper weight placement and distribution. I’ll take it from here if you want to go play.

In the end, we had a great time building the car together, but I really wish I had more time to dedicate to the project. I wasn’t totally happy with the car on the morning of race day, but I was able to take the day off and do some tweaks and modifications while he was at school. By race night I thought we had a pretty decent product. Certainly good enough to take first place in this small town rinky-dink division.

We came in fourth out of eleven cars. Fourth! I’m deeply disappointed, not in our design, but with the other dads. I am seriously questioning the shaping and ground clearance specs on Dad Number Three’s car. I guess nothing else got done that week at his aerospace firm. I’m assuming Dad Number Two owns a machine shop specializing in turning, grinding, and polishing miniature axles, and don’t even get me started on Dad Number One’s custom recessed underside lead weight arrangement. Talk about hijacking the project from the kids.

I’m glad my son and I didn’t fall into that same trap. We had a great time together designing the car. I think he really enjoyed penciling in the car’s initial profile on that block of wood. And I think he learned a lot when I explained to him why his design was crap.

If you’ll excuse me now, I need to get back to the design and prep work for next year, and I need to figure out where those other dads buy their wheel lubricants.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2018 Marc Schmatjen

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