This story originally appeared in the January-February 2015 issue of Scouting magazine.
When Stan Pope became a Cub Scout leader in 1985, he saw how the Pinewood Derby combined fun and family involvement, and included a healthy dose of sportsmanship. But he also saw how quickly fun could turn into disappointment.
“Sadly, two of the racers from the eight-boy den were done after racing just twice, and two more were done after their third race,” he recalls of the double-elimination schedule. “Half of the den became spectators.”
After that first race, the Morton, Ill., resident used his background in math and physics to improve on the Pinewood Derby by devising fairer racing schemes.
“My math education included courses in number theory and probability for which I found no use until I worked to develop and compare racing schedules,” he says.
But you don’t need an advanced degree to see that scheduling can affect how fun, fair and accurate your pack’s Pinewood Derby is. Here’s an overview of some of the common methods.
Packs that don’t have high-tech computer-controlled tracks often use double-elimination brackets to determine their derby winners. As the name suggests, double elimination means a Cub Scout is out of contention after losing two races. The first loss puts the youth in the losers’ bracket; the second puts him or her on the sidelines.
Double-elimination tournaments can go quickly. For example, if you had 24 cars and a three-lane track, you would need to run only 26 or 27 heats. (The actual number depends on the outcome of the first heat between the top car in the winners’ bracket and the top car in the losers’ bracket.) Other methods can take longer, although not necessarily significantly so.
You don’t need a timing system. Since each heat is a head-to-head competition, race times from one heat to the next are irrelevant.
Spectators can easily follow the action. You can post the bracket on a wall and fill in the names of the winners and losers as you go along.
Kids get to race only twice before they’re eliminated. Plus, because most cars are eliminated after three rounds of races, you can end up with a lot of bored Cub Scouts on your hands.
A double-elimination tournament accurately determines only the top two cars. That can be a problem if you need to send your top three contenders on to the district or council derby. (The other option is to run a triple-elimination competition.)
There’s no compensation for lane variations. Even the best tracks have faster and slower lanes, which double elimination doesn’t take into account.
Given the disadvantages of traditional double-elimination races, some packs opt for a lane-rotation setup. The easiest method is to rotate one car in and one car out for each heat, moving the remaining cars over one lane each time. On a three-lane track, for example, cars 1, 2 and 3 would race in the first heat; cars 2, 3 and 4 would race in the second heat; and so forth. At the end of racing, the first cars that rotated out rotate back in. (With 24 cars, the last two heats would feature cars 23, 24 and 1, and cars 24, 1 and 2.)
With lane rotation, you tally the results of each heat, assigning 1 point to first place, 2 points to second place, etc. The winner is the car with the least points.
Lane variation is eliminated. Because cars move over one lane for each heat, every car ends up racing on every lane, reducing the problem caused by fast or slow lanes.
Kids race more. Each Cub Scout gets one race per lane and is never eliminated from the competition.
Every place is determined. Unless two kids’ scores tie, you can easily determine who ends up in first, second and third place.
You still run the risk of having a lot of idle racers hanging around, because most youth will race in back-to-back heats. You can reduce this problem by creating den-level divisions and a championship round.
Proximity hurts. Ending up next to the fastest car in the derby hurts because you’ll race against that car twice.
It’s hard to tell who’s winning at any point. This, however, can also be seen as an advantage since it reduces the focus on having winners and losers.
Other Rotation Methods
Over the years, Pinewood Derby gurus like Pope and Cory Young, of Chantilly, Va., have developed an array of rotation methods that overcome the limitations of simple lane rotation.
With the Perfect-N method, for example, each car runs in each lane the same number of times and faces every other car the same number of times. Since certain combinations of lanes and cars won’t work with Perfect-N, Pope and Young developed the more flexible Partial Perfect-N method, which works in almost every setting. (Click here for chart generators for both methods.)
Of course, the final choice of scheduling methods is up to you. Regardless of which method you choose, remember Pope’s advice: “Providing a fair and fun environment that finds the fastest cars is the bait we use so that the Cub Scouts accomplish the goals of Cub Scouting.”