Points or Times: Which Method Should I Use?
Life used to be simple. Only a few TV channels to choose from, no Starbucks to give us multiple coffee options, and pinewood derby winners were decided by elimination. But since humans thrive on innovation, we now have lots of channels and coffee choices, and we have other options for running pinewood races.
I for one am pleased that other options exist for deciding pinewood derby winners. For years we used a double-elimination method. I tried very hard to make the race fair, but I realized that issues existed. Although reasonably simple to implement, elimination methods are fraught with problems, and - unless very carefully implemented - are not very fair (see Volume 3, Issue 7 - "Elimination Methods - Let's Make Some Improvements").
So, when I discovered Points racing, our organization quickly shifted over to that method. At the time, we had a finish line judge, but it was not a timer, so there was no debate as to whether to use Points or Times; Points was the only choice.
Then we replaced the finish line judge with a timer, and integrated the timer with the Grand Prix Race Manager software. By the magic of software, we could now use Points or Times, and - after the race - dynamically switch back and forth to compare the two methods.
I first did this comparison for our 2004 race. We were using Points and each car ran once in each lane. The top finishers then advanced to a finals round (we advanced 10 car). In the finals my son's car ended up taking fourth place. This seemed strange to me, for as I watched the heats I expected him to take third place.
So after the race, I did a little investigation and discovered that, by average heat time, his car was actually the third-fastest car. How did he end up in fourth place? This happened because of the race mix in the finals.
If each car had raced against every car the same number of times, then the heat mix would not matter. But my son's car ended up racing against the two fastest cars more than the third place car. So, he accumulated fewer points than the third place car, thus taking fourth place.
When I made this discovery, my first thought was, "Next year we are going to use Times!" But later, I decided that making a rash decision wasn't the wisest move. So, I did some investigation regarding the two methods, the result of which I will now share with you.
Defining Points Vs. Times
Just to make sure we are all thinking the same thing, let's define Points and Times.
The Points method uses a preset race schedule (we use Perfect-N), wherein each car races the same number of times in each lane, and races against as many other cars as possible. The results of each heat are recorded, with points assigned based on the finish order. Points can be assigned as 4, 3, 2, 1 for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th places (high points wins), or 1, 2, 3, and 4 points for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th places (low points wins). The points are then totaled and the winners decided.
The Times method uses a preset race schedule, wherein each car races the same number of times in each lane. Generally, the cars race against as many other cars as possible, but the heat mix does not affect the outcome. The heat times are accumulated, and then trophies are awarded based on the lowest cumulative time, or lowest average time.
Points - Advantages/Disadvantages
Let's first look at the advantages and disadvantages of the Points method.
- Does not require a timer.
- The audience can 'validate' the heat results by seeing that the finish order on the scoreboard matches what they witnessed. This leads to higher audience confidence.
- The eventual winner of the race is not obvious, and cannot be decided until the heats are completed (with Times, the audience can oftentimes pick out the fastest car by watching the timer results). This leads to more excitement and anticipation at the race.
- Heat placement is meaningful. A car must place well in the heats in order to place well overall (with Times, heat placement is largely irrelevant).
- A poor heat only slightly penalizes a car (with Times, a slow heat oftentimes eliminates the car from any chance of winning).
- If the operator running the start gate causes a slow heat (which can happen with the older style gates), the results are still valid as the heat time is irrelevant. With Times, the heat would need to be rerun (if the problem was detected).
- More heats are required. With Times, only 1 heat per lane is required to determine the trophy winners. With Points, depending on the number of cars, an additional round (or more) will likely be needed to accurately give out the trophies.
- Heat mix affects the results. As described earlier, if scheduled to race against predominantly faster cars, a given car will be penalized.
Now, let's look at the advantages and disadvantages of the Times method.
- Fewer heats are required - only 1 heat per lane.
- Heat mix does not affect the results.
- Requires a timer.
- The audience cannot 'validate' the heat results. The timer must be trusted to accurately capture each heat.
- The final winner can sometimes be determined by the audience by simply watching the timer results.
- The finish order within a given heat (or set of heats) is largely irrelevant. For example, if a car is scheduled to race against slower cars, that car can win every heat, and still not win a trophy. (How do you explain to a child that although their car never lost, they didn't win?)
- A poor heat significantly penalizes a car. To rectify this, the slowest heat can be eliminated before cumulating or averaging the heats.
- On some tracks operator error can significantly affect times. A fool-proof starting gate is a must for this method of scoring.
After this analysis, I decided to stick with the Points method for our local race. I believe this method has fewer problems and is more easily understood and accepted by the participants and their parents.
However, I concede that the Times method has a place. If your race involves a large number of cars, then the Times method can greatly increase the speed of the event. Large events such as district or regional championship commonly use a Times method for scoring the race. But if you choose to use a Times method, make sure that the method is clearly explained to the participants.