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Off the Rim column: Behind the scenes of a bowling alley

August 22, 2012
By Jimmy Gillispie - Sports Editor ( , Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

Ever been bowling, throw a strike and wonder why your ball didn't return to you? Or maybe why only nine pins were put back down on the floor instead of 10?

It's been one my goals for years to find out what happens behind the scenes or walls of a bowling alley. That's why I did a bit of "investigative reporting" at Venture Lanes in Tama on Tuesday afternoon. I watched President Obama roll through town and then went to find out what happens to the pins and ball after you throw your ball.

I met with the co-owner, Todd Apfel, and he was more-than-happy to show me the back of the bowling alley. What I saw amazed me!

There are 12 large machines, one for each lane, that run the pin and ball return. The machines at Venture Lanes are decades old, but still function very well. I learned that many of the new machines are, much like everything else, electronic.

"If something goes wrong, you have to replace a circuit board," Apfel said. "The new machines are simpler and they basically just drop the pins in the spot. However, they break quite easily. Electronics can go wrong quickly. I'd rather keep a few belts, springs and bolts in stock versus keeping electronic boards."

Here's how the process works. When a ball is rolled past a certain point on the lane, where a black box resides in between lanes, it is picked up by a camera, which sets the scoring system in motion. A few feet later, it passes another smaller sensor before hitting the pins. That second sensor triggers the arm to come down and sweep the pins and records the speed of the ball.

Then it comes time for the large machine to do its job. The pins and ball slide back to the back of the machine on a vibrating floor. Once they reach the back, they fight for a spot on two large wheels. One wheel takes the ball to the right, while the pins battle for spots on the left wheel.

The ball is picked up by the wheel and brought to the top, where it lands on a track and rolls a few feet before gravity takes over. Then it's back to you in a few seconds. Meanwhile, the pins are brought up and placed on a different track with their bottom going first. The pins fall into one of 10 separate holders, one for each spot on the floor, while they wait for their chance to return to the floor.

"A one horsepower motor drives it all," Apfel said. "There are a billion belts, pulleys and gears that also run it. It's a complex machine, but the whole process is pretty simple."

Each lane's machine holds a different number of pins. Apfel said each machine has the capacity for 21 pins, but if that many are used, it causes problems for the machines. Lane eight, the one he showed me, holds 19 pins. Each one has a specific number that it prefers, which was something I never had a clue about. I love learning new things about something that seemed simple.

"They're like kids," Apfel said of the machines. "They're like 50-some year old kids."

Since it holds 19 pins, lane eight will have 10 on the floor and nine ready to go to down. However, it must wait for one pin to return to the top before it can be ready for the next ball. Other lanes work better with 14 pins, so it needs six of the pins that were just hit to fill up. This is one reason some lanes may seem slower than others.

"If you get back-to-back strikes, there's going to be a delay," Apfel said. "One, because it's waiting for a pin and, two, because there are a lot of pins fighting for a spot on the wheel."

After learning how the machine works, I asked Apfel the questions that every bowler wants to know. Why does my ball get stuck? Why don't 10 pins come down every time?

When a pin is being put into its lane holder, it is placed on a silver "spoon" latch that allows the machine to move to the next slot. The latch is pushed and the ball is placed into position, which is at an angle and each pin number has a different angle. Well, it's pretty simple what happens. Sometimes the vibration of the machine knocks a pin out of its holder and the bowler will see a pin drop in the back out of nowhere. Then the group of pins is lowered down, only having nine pins,

"People think this is all really easy back here," Apfel said. "When you consider all of the things that the machine goes through during each operation, it's pretty amazing they don't break down even more."

Now, the all-important question. How does a ball get stuck in the back? And what's the best way to get it back?

Despite popular belief, a bowling ball isn't being chewed up if it doesn't get returned. Most likely, it's picked up too much oil from the floor and is spinning too much to be picked up by the wheel in the back of the machine. This happens more often when a ball is rolled directly down the middle.

Other causes of "stuck" balls are using older black bowling balls, which are magnets for oil, or using a lightweight plastic ball that isn't heavy enough to push pins out of the way so it can make it on the wheel.

"Sometimes a pin will go up with the ball and keep the ball from rolling back," Apfel said. "Some people also throw multiple balls after the first one doesn't come back. The more balls you have sitting in here, the more drag you're putting on the belt. The more drag you put on it, the more it won't want to lift the ball."

The best lesson I learned Tuesday - don't roll more balls down the lane after the first one gets stuck. A second one has the potential to knock it into place, but it's more likely to make the situation worse. The best thing to do is to notify an employee after the first ball doesn't return.

"I know a lot of people have their guard up because they don't want to break something or they're afraid you're going to yell at them," Apfel said. "The best way is to make them comfortable and tell them it wasn't the first time and won't be the last time it happens."

Next time you go bowling, you'll know what happens behind the scenes and why something might have gone wrong if a ball or pin doesn't return. It's quite a process, but it's also simple. I'd like to thank Apfel for taking his time to show me behind the scenes of his business.

Now, it's time to go knock some pins down this fall at the Wednesday Night Fall League.



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