28 Years in Pinewood
How it All Started:
|The Pinewood Derby was
absolutely new to me when my six year old son, Brian, brought home his car kit
and asked for a little help. We worked together and got it ready. The Big Day
came, and with it, a life-changing moment. As fate would have it, the emcee selected
me at random, along with another Dad, out of the audience of perhaps a hundred
parents, to be a judge. The year was 1987. I had no inkling of how big this day
was going to be.
To the applause of the
room, we rose and walked up on the stage toward the finish line. I was nervous,
but took a measure of confidence from the fact that my co-judge was a part
time F-16 fighter pilot in the Air National Guard. If his eyes weren't good,
That confidence vanished
in an instant as the first group of cars came roaring down the track in a
single clump. ...Huh? We looked at each other. We looked back at the black
line drawn across the track. We looked at the three cars, now motionless,
embedded in a pillow. Our quick whispered conversation was something like,
"....well, we better do something ...umm ... more important to look decisive
than to be accurate". So we called out, "The red one!" The guy with the grease
pencil dutifully put our verdict up on the chart.
We were actually relieved
when a car with poor performance limped down the track. That gave us a chance
to show that we were performing properly. But for the most part, I have to confess
that neither of us was very confident in what we were doing.
The next year, I spent my
lunch hours, at the lab where I was employed, working on a device to electronically
pick out the winner. It was pretty crude, made of wood, and resembled a shoeshine
stand. It had three flashlight bulbs on top, with the winner lighting up his,
and locking out the two others. Not very sophisticated, but sooo much better
than eyeballs. It was an instant hit. When Brian graduated out of Cubs the following
year, the scoutmaster kept coming back each year begging me to go up in the
attic and find it. I finally just donated it to the pack.
Some races were easier
In early 1994, I was laid
off from my job. My thoughts turned back to the finish line. Was it worth the
gamble, with no job, and not a lot of money around? I worked out a three lane
design on the kitchen table, using common logic chips. It determined the order
of all three cars, not just the winner. I bought parts for a hundred, and started
The first Judge, now called the
Calling the creation "The
Judge" seemed natural. My erstwhile boss had told me as the company had
started to go under, "I think you may have to go out into new directions." So
that's what I called myself, and took out a one inch ad in Scouting magazine.
The level of jitters was much higher than that day at my first derby.
Not to worry. I was sold
out in five weeks. The next year, I cobbled together twice as many. Same result.
I disappointed many for lack of product.
Another year, another doubling.
I expanded to two and four lanes.
Another year, and things
were looking great. Microprocessors were getting reasonable in price, and I
contracted with a programmer to code my ideas. I changed the enclosure to a
design that I could produce entirely in my own workshop. I was now able to handle
any number of lanes up to eight, and fit any track spacing. I had Greg
LeClair make and host a web page. Brian's little sis, Keri, now twelve,
proved to be an artist with the soldering pencil.
By the end of the next year,
I was able to go it alone. No more hiring a boss and fighting the traffic twice
a day. No more office politics and endless inane meetings. Not that things got
easy; they didn't. But they sure did get different. The customer was now the
boss, and there was more competition coming into this tiny niche market. It
forced me to live more in the moment and to look ahead with seriousness. I suddenly
had to play all bases: Purchasing, Receiving, Stocking, Manufacturing, Marketing,
Sales, Service, Inventory, Accounting, Repair, Shipping, and sweeping the floor.
But looking back, if I had my career to do over, I would never have worked for
anyone since the days of my paper route. The freedom of creative expression
and the freedom to choose my hours have been exhilarating.
I take the opportunity most
Pinewood seasons to return to the same elementary school cafeteria where it
all started. While I deal with a lot of Pinewood equipment, I rarely get a chance
to see it in action. Same old drama and excitement. But what an improvement
in the process! The hapless human judges, the grease pencils, the charts, and
the confusion were now replaced by instaneous computerized projection of results
on the big screen. The entire crowd was shouting the count down sequence of
the light tree, as a new race began every minute. No unhappy campers were sitting
out due to an archaic elimination race format. The mood of the crowd ranged
from enthusiastic to ecstatic. The focus was entirely on the boys and their
cars .... just where it should be.
The author and owner
New Directions, John Shreffler,
gives some tips on the
placement of the cars.
see a spectacular Slide Show of a recent Derby
Pack 976, Vienna VA