Leader of the pack
By GRAHAM BRINK, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- As race time approached, the designers doted over their cars, spinning the wheels and checking alignment.
Some polish, others give a quick whisper to their driver. They leave the cars in the starting area with furrowed brows and crossed fingers, like parents dropping off their only child at school for the first time.
Ninety hot rods, with names such as Python and Flame, shone in the sun.
But these cars reach top speeds of only 8 1/2 mph and could fit in NASCAR star Jeff Gordon's water bottle.
This is the annual Pinewood Derby for the Cub Scouts of the Gulf Ridge Council, which covers Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando, Citrus and four other counties.
"It can be a little scary," said Anthony Boullosa, 8, who won one of three age groups with his orange and green, open-wheeled Hurricane. "But it's a lot of fun."
All the cars start out as a chunk of pine. From there, it's up to each Cub Scout, with an assist from a parent or two, to design the fastest car.
Like NASCAR crews, the Cub Scouts, all first- through fifth-graders, must play by a number of rules. Wheel bases are standard length, as are the type of tires. The bodies cannot exceed 7 inches and cannot be a smidgen over 5 ounces.
In the days before the race, some take their cars to their local post office several times to use the precise scales. They all know that the heavier the car, the better chance it has to win. Every little bit counts. They strap on pennies and nickels or fishing weights until they hit the magical 5-ounce mark.
The 90 cars entered in Saturday's competition at the Ice Palace in Tampa had already won in district showdowns. This derby was the top prize, the Daytona 500 of pinewood racing for youngsters in the Tampa Bay area.
Before the race, some cars needed last-minute pit stops when the judges discovered they were slightly overweight or too long. The race starter went over the track with a carpenter's level.
The adult volunteers tested the computer-operated starting gate and the infrared sensors that would record the times, a necessity, as most races were won by less than a car length.
"It's all just a blur when they come out of the gate," said volunteer Christopher Altenbernd, a judge with the 2nd District Court of Appeal.
With the electronic gadgets ready, the starters handled the cars with care, trying not to touch the wheels or axles as they placed the cars in groups of four on the 32-foot track.
The cars ran quietly, gravity the only engine. But with each heat, the Cub Scouts yelled out encouragement. Each car ran four times, with the goal of achieving the lowest average time.
Dylan Bolin won his age group by less than two ten-thousandths of a second, 2.70005 seconds to Kirby Bolt's average of 2.700225 seconds. Anthony and Chris Dunn won their groups in similarly close fashion.
Nine other boys won awards for best design, best paint job and most unique cars. The biggest trophy of the day, the one for most sportsmanlike, went to Clayton Hobart, who finished sixth but cheered throughout.
With their cars gingerly placed back in the old shoe and cigar boxes, the boys walked away talking about how to milk more speed out of their designs.
"More weight near the back," Anthony said. "Moving the tires back helps, too."
-- Contact Graham Brink at (813) 226-3365 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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