Let’s give an Emmy to this pack’s broadcast-quality virtual Pinewood Derby race

The starting line, seen in a screenshot from the race video. (Courtesy of Chris Simpkins)
Chris Simpkins (Photo courtesy of the Simpkins family)

At one point during the depths of pandemic-prompted boredom, Chris Simpkins and his family found themselves watching marbles roll down a track.

Like the millions who have experienced Jelle’s Marble Runs on YouTube, the Simpkins family was hooked.

“It was incredible to see how something as simple as marbles running down a track could be turned into a compelling, competitive sports broadcast,” Chris says.

That thought was rolling around in Chris’ head when he started thinking about the Pinewood Derby for Pack 7 of Slatersville, R.I., part of the Narragansett Council.

When COVID rates started going back up and the prospect of holding an in-person Pinewood Derby seemed unlikely, Race Commissioner Chris started formulating a backup plan.

“The Derby is such an important part of the Cub Scouting experience, and it had to happen one way or another,” he says. “I thought back to those elements that made the marble races so interesting to watch — professional-sounding commentary, exciting graphics, giving the marbles individual personalities — and considered how they could apply to a virtual Pinewood Derby.”

The result is 54 minutes and 12 seconds of high-quality, high-speed fun that’s enjoyable even if you don’t know any of the families in Pack 7.

While we’re all looking forward to getting back to in-person races ASAP, Pack 7’s Pinewood Derby broadcast shows how to bring everyone together, even while apart.

The results screen, seen in a screenshot from the race video. (Courtesy of Chris Simpkins)

Not another Zoom, please!

Converting an in-person Pinewood Derby race to a virtual one could be as simple as pointing a camera at a track in a leader’s garage and going live on YouTube or Facebook or Zoom.

But Chris took the “anything worth doing is worth overdoing” approach, using multiple cameras, fun video segments and ESPN-quality graphics.

Instead of broadcasting the race live, Chris and his small, socially distanced crew used four iPhones to record each heat. Chris, a web developer who calls video editing “just a fun hobby and outlet for getting creative with my kids,” then blended all the footage together into a fast-paced video.

Chris estimates that he put in about 100 hours of work over two months. That includes planning, pre-production, managing the actual races, recording the races, recording the voiceover and editing.

“It was more work than I expected but totally worth it,” he says. “Our Scouts have lost so much over the last year. This was my last year running the derby, and it was really important to me that this year’s event felt special. I didn’t want our Scouts to feel like they were sitting in front of the computer

watching yet another video. I wanted them to feel like this was a big broadcast event made just for them.”

Chris and his fellow volunteers set up the track. (Courtesy of Chris Simpkins)

As seen on TV

Auto racing is a sport best enjoyed on TV, where viewers benefit from turn-by-turn commentary, multiple camera angles and real-time statistics not available at the racetrack.

While I would never advocate for a permanent move to virtual Pinewood Derby races, it’s plain to see some of the advantages to the video format. (Perhaps some of these can be incorporated into your next in-person race, too?)

The video format:

  • Allowed everyone to see each race close up and from different angles. No bad seat in your house!
  • Gave Chris the opportunity to include additional segments from Pack 7 Scouts talking about their builds
  • Included graphics to spotlight award winners
  • Made it possible to have a stop-motion “medical tent” for accidents

“This all helped bring it together to feel like a professional sporting event,” Chris says.

Chris’ son Zach created a stop-motion studio for “repairing” broken Pinewood Derby cars at this car hospital made of Legos. (Courtesy of Chris Simpkins)

More is always better

Chris says he “had a really big vision for this, and I honestly wasn’t sure if I could actually pull it off.”

But he did, and here’s how:

  • Leading up to the races, Chris asked families to submit videos and pictures for the broadcast using Dropbox. These were compiled into the Scout-focused, in-between segments of the broadcast.
  • Chris 3D-printed a rotating photo booth to highlight each car. He used some cheap LED light strips “to make it really pop.”
  • On race day, a small, socially distanced crew of adults and Scouts gathered to capture the footage and run the races.
  • They recorded everything using four iPhones: one at the top of the track, one at the bottom, a “slow-motion” overhead cam above the finish line, and one handheld phone that followed the action from the side. “The hardest part was staying totally quiet during the races so the phones could pick up clear sounds of the track,” Chris says.
  • Chris’ 11-year old son, Zach, a member of Troop 1139, created the stop-motion medical tent segments for the video using the Stop Motion Studio app. “He recently earned his Moviemaking merit badge and had a lot of fun helping out with this,” Chris says.
  • After he had all the footage, Chris edited everything together using Adobe Premiere, which he taught himself to use by watching hours of YouTube tutorials. “I’m still not super confident using the program, but this was a great excuse to finally learn how to use it properly,” he says.
  • Once he had a rough draft ready, Chris and Pack 7’s Cubmaster, Jason Berard, spent a few hours recording the color commentary — “with some dad joke assistance from one of our pack parents,” Chris says.
  • When everything was done, Chris used Facebook and YouTube’s video premiere feature to schedule the video release so that all of the Scouts could watch it “live” at the same time. “It was very exciting when it finally went out and we were getting a lot of messages about it,” Chris says. “Many of our Scouts had friends and families from all over the country tune in and watch with them. That was unexpected and especially neat because many of those folks would never be able to attend the derby otherwise.”
Chris used the editing software Adobe Premiere to put everything together. (Courtesy of Chris Simpkins)

Bringing this idea to your pack

Chris says the response to all his hard work has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I don’t think anyone really understood the scope of what was being produced until they saw the broadcast, so it felt like a nice surprise when they finally got to see it,” he says. “Families made a big event out of the premiere, with some even decorating their living rooms for it.”

And what about the most important audience, the Cub Scouts?

“They were absolutely pumped to see themselves on the big screen and to see their cars featured so close up,” Chris says. “Our pack families shared pictures and videos of their Scouts watching with big smiles on their faces. That made all of the stress and hard work worth it.”

I asked Chris what Scouters should do if they don’t have 100 hours to devote to the Pinewood Derby or aren’t quite ready to learn Adobe Premiere.

“You definitely don’t have to go as overboard as we did,” Chris says. “Even if you just set up a single camera and broadcast the races live, think about some small things you can do to make it special and personal for your Scouts.”

You might:

  • Give your viewers a tour of the venue
  • Show your Scouts how all the track equipment works together
  • Tell some jokes and bring some personality to it

“Think of your virtual derby as an opportunity to try new things that you might not be able to do in a normal year,” Chris says. “If you do want to get fancy, there are some powerful apps for your phone that make editing pretty easy, like iMovie on iPhone. Whatever you do, just have some fun with it.”

Watch the Pack 7 race

About Bryan Wendell 3124 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.