High-Tech Pinewood Derby Racetrack Resolves Race Times 0.00005 Seconds

Fun & Games Woodworking
High-Tech Pinewood Derby Racetrack Resolves Race Times 0.00005 Seconds

I asked Cub Scout parent Eldon Asp to describe the cool extruded aluminum racing tracks for the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby held in Manhattan Beach, CA last week. Here’s his report:

Photo by Bob Visty.

For generations of Cub Scouts, the Pinewood Derby has been a gateway to the joys and frustrations of making.

While the basic concept — a simple block of wood is transformed into a gravity-powered race car and sent rolling down the track to glory — has remained unchanged through the derby’s 59-year history, recent advances have made the racing faster and the judging more fair.

Photo by Bob Visty.

Manhattan Beach, CA, the birthplace of the derby, held its annual event Feb 11th at the Automobile Driving Museum in El Segundo. Instead of the original wooden course, however, the scouts raced their cars on slick four-lane extruded aluminum tracks fitted with spring-loaded starting gates and infrared sensors at the finish line.


The track timer, manufactured by BestTrack with electronics from SmartLine, is capable of resolving race times to 0.00005 seconds. The clock starts with a switch attached to the starting gate and stops when each car breaks the IR beam at the finish line. Results are revealed instantly on two-sided LED displays, and simultaneously sent to an attached PC running a race management program that tracks standings and organizes brackets on the fly. (For the really close races, SmartLine offers a proprietary video capture device which, when combined with the user’s own camcorder, can record photo finishes.)

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Mark Frauenfelder is the founding Editor-in-Chief of Make: magazine, and the founder of the popular Boing Boing blog.

View more articles by Mark Frauenfelder


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