Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Pinewood, Part Deux

Happy Monday, everybody! We had a little moisture fall from the sky yesterday and some of it was still on the ground this morning, but the brave school officials of Baltimore County threw caution to the winds and decided to go ahead and open the schools two hours late. And they say there are no heroes anymore.

So, which major event of the weekend should we start with today? GW's third straight win? Georgetown's 11th? Maryland's huge bubblicious upset of #5 North Carolina? No? How about the big score by Scorsese at the Oscars last night? No, I'm talking really big. That's right, I'm talking Pinewood Derby.

You may recall that about this time last year, I published a long ode to my odious achievements in this annual Cub Scout event. At my therapist's recommendation, I'll spare you all the excruciatingly painful details, but again yesterday, I found myself seated among some 200 6-12 year-old boys and parents, all of us awaiting the swift and relentless judgment of race day.

We again had two entries, my older son choosing a very original T-bone steak design (complete with a USDA Prime seal of approval) and the younger boy vying for the Most Patriotic Award with an American-flag themed rectangular prism. Several observers noted that it had the appearance of a flag-draped coffin, but since none of the other cars had yellow ribbons affixed to their bumpers, no political arguments erupted. Besides, this is not a day for division, it's a day for unity in pursuit of the checkered flag at the end of a 20-foot wooden track.

The boys and I had worked harder than ever on the cars this year. We also worked smarter. After the designs were selected and initial drawings completed, we visited a friend who possesses tools and skills, and he generously assisted them in cutting their cars to the designed shape. Several afterschool sanding and painting sessions later, we were ready for the weight and the wheels, the most crucial elements of peak Pinewood performance.

I consulted a few websites (pinewoodpro.com - "Increase your child's self-esteem! Here's how... Design a Winning Pinewood Derby Car!" and derbydominator.com - "I would say 'good luck' but, as you will see, luck has nothing to do with winning the pinewood derby"), and then leaned on another friend who knows all the speed tricks. I figured if I could do even half of what he told me, I'd be way ahead of last year. After yet another trip to the hobby shop - where they always smile when they see me walk in the door - I had five grades of sandpaper, a couple files and enough graphite to build new shafts for a Big Bertha driver and fairway woods. Six hours of work later, they weren't perfect, but I was pretty sure these cars would make it to the finish line, and maybe even faster than before.

The night before Race Day is sort of like a reverse Chirstmas Eve - I can't sleep, but it's not joyful anticipation. After church in the morning, another friend asks me about the legality of weights attached underneath the car. "Of course that's okay," I reply, but I am not sure, and panic sets in as I realize that the Flagmobile has about 1.5 ounces screwed into its undercarriage. Alternate plans swirl through my mind for the next hour until we arrive at the race site and find that we are well within the clearance limits. Whew!

The race scene is the same as always. Excitement, tension, and relief mix with the smell of steamed hot dogs and everywhere there are metallic gray smears of powdered graphite. We tinker with the Flagmobile, adding and removing tenths of ounces, until it hits exactly 5.0 on the official scale. Finally both cars are checked in and we can relax.

This is my favorite time of the day. We can do nothing more, we won't even be allowed to touch the cars until the races are over. At the same time, our record is unbesmirched and optimism prevails. I wander over to the stage and look over the other entries. There are several NASCAR facsimiles, the requisite Swiss cheese car with mouse atop, a Spiderman vehicle, a wedge of green-frosted birthday cake complete with a candle, a thin Mr. Goodbar, a thick, fatty slab of bacon, and a cellular phone displaying a picture of the owner's brother picking his nose. Sheer genius.

Flagmobile races first, and my first error rears its head. Apparently I mounted the weight toward the front of the car, against the experts' recommendations. Our four heats are decidedly unremarkable, and we finish somewhere in the middle of the pack. In a move toward a kinder, gentler Derby, there are awards for every car and my younger son marches to the stage to claim his Most Patriotic Car medal. I guess Best Unintentional Political Statement is not a category this year.

Steakmobile is up next, and the tension ratchets up a notch. My older son tends to be more rigid in his expectations, harder on himself and others in the event of failure. In Heat One, we clock in at 2.58 seconds, faster than any of last year's runs, but fourth out of four running. My son's accusatory reaction from five seats away is abrupt and a little louder than I care for. "You said it would race better this year. You liar!" Pointing out the incremental improvement doesn't seem to help much.

Heat Two is a lot better at 2.53, but unless you can post in under 2.5, you're not taking home a trophy. We are a very close second in Heat Three at 2.51. I am pleased enough with the performance that I can't remember Heat Four's time. I am also pleased that the Pack Leader has taken my recommendation from last year and does not display the complete standings on the big screen. The top three in each age group are announced and awarded, but nobody knows who finished fourth, or tenth, or dead last. I would guess that like his brother's, my older boy's car is in the middle, but nobody likes seeing his name at the bottom of the list, and I would know. Steakmobile wins the Most Imaginative medal, and suddenly, it's all over.

We watch the other age groups, and then the finals, and then the boys head over to some friends' house for the remainder of the day. I head home to start cleaning the kitchen counter that has been Derby Central for the last few days. Later I go to pick them up, and their friends' dad and I have a beer and watch the Terps' game. His sons are triplets, so he has to help get three cars built and then watch them compete against one another. He emphatically and quite convincingly describes Derby Day as the "most stressful day of my year."

This morning at breakfast, both of the boys want to know why our cars were "so slow." As an answer, I find one of the stopwatches Santa Claus left in their stocking this year.

"Your best time was 2.51 seconds," I say. "The winner's best time was about 2.45. That's a difference of six one-hundredths of a second." I click the start and stop button on the stopwatch as fast as I can, and after a few tries I can get it as low as 0.12 seconds. "That's pretty quick, isn't it?" I ask. When they nod, I remind them that it is twice as long as the margin of defeat. I can only hope the appreciate how close they really were.


Dan said...

Do you have a photo? How big are these cars?

Bill Fitzgerald said...

The cars are quite small. Seven inches long, 1 3/4 wide and 1 1/4 high. I'll put a photo here when I learn the html code, so check back about a year from now.