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Everything I needed to know in life I learned from the Pinewood Derby


Well, maybe not everything, but quite a bit.  And not exactly the Pinewood Derby, per se, but the “Pixelwood Derby,” which is a grownup version held annually in Austin, TX.  Like the Cub Scout inspired merit badge event, the Pixelwood requires competitors to craft their own vehicles to a tight design spec using a small block of wood, four aluminum nails (axels), and four plastic wheels.  Where it likely differs is with the fancy, electronically timed racetrack, a perfect replica of the Back To The Future Delorean off to the side, at least five folks walking around in movie quality storm trooper outfits, and a welcome stream of Tito’s vodka and Stash IPA. 

When Grant Chambers, the CEO of Workhorse, a key marketing partner of ours at iGrafx, asked us to participate in this charity event I agreed.  I mean, it’s for a great cause (The Settlement Home for Children), and it offers a chance to network with some really cool Austin-based companies, like Indeed, Phunware, Yeti, Grande Communications,, ShipEngine, etc.  Plus, I was fairly confident that I could find someone at iGrafx to pawn the actual car building off on, so what did I have to lose?

Well, it turns out that the whole pawning-off thing backfired and I became the designer, builder and race car handler.  And given that my nights and weekends are pretty full, it wasn’t like I had big chunks of spare time screaming out for wooden cars to build.  So, that was life lesson #1: if you’ve got something important to do, be prepared to do it yourself.  Lead by example.  Fall on the grenade for your team.  Something like that.

Lesson number two was that if you need to learn anything, no matter how arcane, there’s a YouTube video for it.  I could’ve watched videos on the scientific approaches to constructing Pinewood Derby racers for days if I hadn’t peeled myself away from the computer and headed out to the garage.  Seriously.  People have spent A LOT of time analyzing, quantifying and pontificating about little wooden Cub Scout cars.

Lesson #3 was a reminder that if you own a compound miter saw and a table saw, they will be used as places in the garage to pile years-worth of clutter, making their extrication a project in and of itself.  Sigh.

After finally getting the power tools out, my plan was to make a very simple design, but a very fast car.  All the YouTubing had me convinced that I held the secrets to speed, and that iGrafx would be a shoe-in for the fastest car award.  So, after making a few cuts, doing some sanding, painting, polishing, bending, cursing, weighting, aligning and graphiting, lesson #4 materialized – have the right tools for the job.  Turns out that the vast, underground world of Pinewood Derbying has a dark web network of places to buy everything from precision axel benders to custom aerodynamic weights.  And I had none of that stuff.  My best laid strategic plans left a bit to be desired in final execution.

Still, lesson #5 was pretty fantastic, and it came to me when my 15-year-old, high school sophomore son actually volunteered to help me with the project.  Simply, if you want to find a way to get your elusive, exceptionally cool, very rarely around son to spend some time away from his friends (and Fortnite), and hang out with you at home, start building a little wooden car in your garage!

When the paint dried, even without the high-tech derby car tools, I was fairly pleased with the way everything had come together, and honestly thought that we’d have a chance at winning the fastest car contest at the event.  Seriously, how many of the other corporate competitors would take the time to watch the videos and implement all of the sciency tips and tricks?  Turns out, lots of them.  Lesson #6, YouTube is available to everyone, and lesson #7, there are a lot of folks in Austin who take this stuff incredibly seriously!  Our car wasn’t bad, and typically ran second or third in each of our many heats.  But that wasn’t enough to get us first place, or even in the top 8 out of 20!  Two tenths of a second is an eternity on a Pinewood Derby track…  And don’t get me started on the cars that looked cooler than ours AND were faster!  Form and function.  Poetry in motion.  Copious time on people’s hands… 😉

Lesson #8, and the one that ties back to iGrafx, is that I wish I’d had the ability to use our own collaborative mapping, modeling, simulation and performance management software to create the car.  I could’ve quantified and controlled risks and automated workflows to ensure that I closed the gap between strategy and execution.  Elon Musk would’ve been jealous.  It was a perfect case of the cobbler’s kids lack of shoes.

In the end, though, it’s all about lesson #9.  And that is, win or lose, racing little wooden cars down a track is fun and perplexingly addictive.  I’m already planning for the iGrafx tour de force in 2019!

Thanks again to Workhorse for making it happen.

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