As kids, there were only so many outlets available to satiate our automotive obsession. While we always had grand visions of things like building the ultimate model A/C Cobra or hewing the sleekest Pinewood Derby racer that the sport had ever seen, our projects typically turned out looking more like Revell nightmares and shop class castoffs. We simply lacked the granular motor skills to turn our hopes and dreams into plastic and pine realities. We're guessing that Sam Francis never had that problem.
As a local Cub Scouts leader, Francis has made a reputation for himself by crafting unbelievably intricate Pinewood Derby cars. Last year he worked up a Keaton-era Batmobile to show the kids in his troop exactly what could be done with a little patience and a lot of skill, but this year, he wanted to do something even more special. It just so happened that while Francis was racking his brain for a little inspiration, Audi yanked back the veil on its new R18 Le Mans machine. Suddenly, Francis had his shape.
"I saw the R18 on some web site," Francis said. "I did a couple of models and I decided to go with that."
This year, the event organizers stipulated that each Pinewood Derby car had to be fully built in just 30 days, and while Francis had no intention of actually entering his R18 in competition, he wanted to abide by the same rules that the competing Cub Scouts had to adhere to. That meant his car had to weigh in at less than five ounces, use the wheels and axles supplied by organizers and be carved from a simple block of pine.
Francis is also an electrical engineer by trade and wanted to ply his skills on his R18. As a result, the creation uses no less than 14 LEDs powered by a 3.6-volt lithium-ion battery and controlled by an 8-pin dip switch. A super capacitor also makes sure the lights have steady power and won't dim or flicker as the battery drains.
In order to make room for all that hardware, the pinewood R18 was carved in two separate halves and has a hollow center.
"I do the cars in halves because you have to do the electronics and the wiring inside," he said. "I learned a lot doing the first half [of the R18], which made the second half easier."
As anyone who's ever struggled with the fickle material can tell you, while easy to carve, pine is also prone to chipping and splitting. Surprisingly enough, the model you see above took Francis just one try to get right.
"I didn't know if it was going to be too wide or too narrow, but I managed to get it right on the money."
Once the carving was done and the lights were properly wired, it came time for paint. Thanks to a connection at his local Sherwin-Williams, Francis was able to score the exact paint codes as Audi uses on its products. With a little lettering and a steady hand, Francis had his Pinewood R18 sitting pretty.
Long before he had a den of his own, Francis rose through the Boy Scout ranks, so he knows how important the derby can be for both kids and parents.
"I didn't want to race the car," Francis said. "A lot of people take the Pinewood Derby too serious. I didn't want to be the guy to show up with a really hot car at a kids' event. I didn't want to take away from their evening."
But once the competitors had unveiled their racers, Francis was asked to show off his sequel to last year's Batmobile.
"The kids loved it."
So what's next? Francis says that he may not stick so closely to the 30-day requirement next year. He's already got a few ideas lined up and promises to share the build process with us on the next go around. Who knows? Maybe with his help we can finally build a car that won't get laughed off the track.
BONUS: Click here to see 100 cool Pinewood Derby car photos collected by, who else, Boys Life.