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August 11, 2003

A Contest That Really Measures Up

It seems as though there are contests for every kind of person imaginable. There's sumo wrestling, math competitions, pie eating, drag racing, bridge playing, and everything in between. Of course, most of these contests require some sort of ability: strength, reflexes, knowledge, and in the cases of what interests me, money. Some contests are more "entry level" than some, but even so participating may be cheap, but competing certainly isn't. Pumpkin chucking is fun, but requires money, machinery, and pumpkins. Lawn tractor racing is both ludicrous and interesting, but again requires money and machinery. I need something that I - a guy with little money but lots of imagination - can participate in. And I think I've figured out what that is.

By nature, I tend to go for more technically oriented contests. Combat robotics has been an interest of mine for a couple years now. I even have a number of fighting robot designs fleshed out to varying degrees of detail, just waiting to be built. Of course, with access to neither a machine shop nor about $2000 to purchase the necessary electronics, motors, batteries, and associated hardware, it's remained more of an interest than a hobby. Lawn tractor racing also interests me, just because it's so preposterous. Again, it requires time, money, and this time technical knowledge that I don't have. Yet I still long to be able to build something at reasonable cost, find a niche of other mechanical nerds like myself, and vie against them in a friendly yet engagingly competitive event.

Just this week I was putting the finishing touches on the fence that now encloses my back yard, and I accidentally hit on an idea that is just cheap enough, fun enough, and stupid enough to work. I was in the middle of a marathon four-hour stint of measuring, cutting, spacing, and mounting fence boards. As I had done about 150 times before, I mounted a board in my workbench and measured off the length I needed to cut. For some reason, after measuring this particular board I failed to both hold on to my tape measure and engage the lock. As a result, my tape measure flew out of my hand, propelled by its own spring-return mechanism, and launched itself off the end of the board I was measuring. I'm certain this is not the first time in my life I've had a tape run off like that, but this time a light went on, and I realized something: I want to start Tape Measure Drag Racing.

How much does a typical tape measure go for? A short one could be had for about $10. If you want a contractor-quality super-long tape measure, it might be as much as $50 or more (that's a guess). That's peanuts compared to the $500US that just a multi-channel radio controller costs to use with a combat robot. Robot builders spend that much in duct tape, spit and wire! Even the tools one might need to "soup up" a tape measure are readily available. You'll likely need a set of screwdrivers, perhaps some tin snips, a file, a drill, and some needle nose pliers. That's accessible to many more people than a full-blown machine shop would be, or even a full set of Imperial wrenches.

As the name implies, Tape Measure Drag Racing (or maybe just "Tape Racing") would be a head-to-head competition, just like real drag racing, with the aim being to get your tape measure down the "track" faster than your opponent. There would be a timing mechanism to see who wins and goes on to compete. It could be something as simple as a circuit that gets physically broken by the winner, illuminating a lightbulb. Of course, I'd eventually strive to build a full "Christmas tree" and electronic timing at some point. But it has to start somewhere, right?

I can picture the race structure already. There will be at least three classes; "12" for 12' tape measures (and under), "25" for tape measures between 12 and 25 feet, and Unlimited, where anything goes. The "12" class could be run on a long folding table, and the "25" class could have two such tables. For the Unlimited class, which could include any length and any internal modification, I may have to construct a collapsible track that could accommodate the longest tape measures available. Or, if I wanted to be cheap, just specify that the Unlimited class runs on uncoated concrete and find a suitable venue with a concrete floor.

The "12" and "25" classes would be where I would expect most people would start trying their hand at tape measure drag racing. They'd perhaps put stronger springs in their rewind mechanism, maybe lubricate all internal parts, or simply ensure that there are no sharp or rough edges for their rewinding tape to rub against. The rules would be simple: retain the basic design of the tape measure, and you must retain both the original tape and the original body. Modifications to the body and inner workings are acceptable, but the tape must remain original, and useable as a tape measure.

Unlimited is where the fun that can be bought with more money will be had. Unlimited class, as the name implies, means that there are almost no limitations to what you can do. The only rules would be that whatever is being raced must still be useful as a tape measure (and be accurate to within 1% over its length) and be motivated only by the return mechanism for said tape. Want your tape to be ultra-light and ultra-strong carbon fiber? Go for it. Enclose it in a titanium case? Sure! Make the rewind mechanism a model airplane engine or an electric motor? Why not? Even with the sky being the limit, there's only so much of anything that can be crammed into a tape measure, keeping even this elite class within reach of just about anyone. Of course, someone might try to wrap a marked conveyor belt around the rear wheels of their drag Camaro, so there would likely have to be a weight limit of a kilogram or something to keep things sane. Rules, as always, will evolve over time.

Is this a stupid idea? Yeah, it is. That's why I like it so much. It's a hobby that it entirely accessible to me right now: it's fun, it's off-the-wall, it's not expensive, and it taps into the same juices that have been running through my blood making me dream of pumpkin catapults, combat robots, utility vehicle races, and wanting to get a team together for Junkyard Wars. Will it be a worthwhile substitute? Only time will truly tell, but I see potential here that makes me smile.

Has this idea stirred any dormant technophile feelings in you? Are you already checking out prices for tape measures online as you read this? Have you figured a way to take 50% of the weight out of your tape measure, and make use of that R/C sprint motor that's been sitting in your workbench for the past decade? Well, wipe the drool off your chin and e-mail me at stating your desire to help me start up this dubious sport. Let's give all those technophiles, engineers, tinkerers, and mechanical lunatics a cheap yet thrilling reason to dig out that tape measure and go racing!

I wonder if I can get Home Depot to sponsor me?


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