Zen and the art of the Pinewood Derby

In school auditoriums, church basements and parish halls across the country, young children and their parents aren't focused on their phones and tablets, they are watching small wooden cars with simple plastic wheels race down a track for glory, perhaps a trophy and most definitely a patch. 

For the past 65 years Cub Scouts, siblings, and parents have been designing, cutting and painting simple five ounce blocks of wood into racing machines that can reach speeds of almost 50 miles an hour. It's tradition, there are no advantages of being bigger or stronger, it's whoever builds the best car, or who gets a lucky draw and somehow avoids the best built car. 

Growing up, I never won a pinewood derby. We used to get our cars cut by an elderly German man who lived on our block and was a carpenter. Then we would paint them. Our Pack would have a big derby night it was always so much fun. But as the 80s moved on, people started using graphite to speed up their wheels, and instead of gluing on coins to get a little heavier, there were weight inserts and all kinds of things to make your car just a little faster. By the time my brother and I got out of Cub Scouts, it was clear that there were three camps of pinewood derby cars. Cars built by the kids alone. Cars built with some parental help. And cars that were built entirely by the parent (or now paid professionals). 

Our cars were in that second group. Were they as fast? No. Painted as slickly? No. But to each his own. 

Years later one of our Boy Scout leaders thought it would be fun to have the Troop (and the leaders) make cars and race them. It was an opportunity to teach the boys (most who had not been Cub Scouts) to use a pocket knife for carving and get introduced to some power tools. The car I made, all carved with a Gerber pocket knife and a rasp was great. I had it spray painted and finished with clear nail polish to give it a showroom shine. I researched weights and weight distribution and low and behold, I won the adult competition (and in an exhibition I beat the scout winner as well). No trophy but I was secure in the knowledge that I could build one of these cars. And make it go fast. 

Fast forward to my son’s first year in Cub Scouts. We were both really excited about the prospect of making his car. Having known a lot of the other parents in that Pack, I was pretty certain that we would making a really competitive car. 

We looked online to find shapes, he decided on a wedge (which for my money is the king of pinewood shapes). He drew out the basic shape and I sawed off the rest. I should have made the cut a little deeper. We spent a few weekends sanding and smoothing out the car. It was looking good. He wanted the car to look like Freddie from Five Nights at Freddie’s. And it sure did. It looked great. We got it weighed and I added some weight. 

The night of the derby came. And when we got our official weigh in we were light so we added some weight tape. And hoped for the best. There was a mix of cars from each camp. This wasn't going to be as easy as I thought. 

Our car was fast. But other cars were faster. My then six year old was really frustrated. As his car finished behind faster cars in race after race. He had a hard time cheering on one of his best friends and Den mates as he went on to win the derby, incidentally that scout’s car went on to win second place at the World Pinewood Derby later that spring. 

He was upset, I think the idea of winning became so much a part of it. He didn't get to enjoy the proverbial journey down the wooden track. 

This year he decided on a more sleek race car looking derby car. We had a cousin who has the proper tools cut the car and it looks beautiful. My son sanded it down until it was super smooth. He decided on a color scheme, silver and red. And I got some spray paint. We made a silver car with a thick red racing stripe down the middle. He calls it “The Destroyer”. The wheels look straight, there is a good amount of weight on, and I have extra stick on weight just in case. This car is ready. I hope we are. 

The Cubmaster sent out an email early in the day reminding the parents that there would only be trophies for the fastest cars. While the Cub Scouts motto is “Do Your Best” not “Do THE Best”, he felt it was important to celebrate the winning. As we drove over to the church I was giving my son a pep talk. Emphasizing how great the car he worked on came out and that the race was all about fun. 

We signed in the car, I added a few more ounces of weight to get it right up to the weight limit. And a few splashes of graphite powder. All of the boys were taking practice runs down the track. There were some cars that were really fast, but nothing amazing. 

I will admit I sighed in relief when he won his first race. 

When the three rounds of racing ended, there was a four way tie for third place. And then began a single elimination final four style bracket. The Destroyer was in the first heat. And easily beat a green car. Then just squeaked by a matte black car in the final. He was so happy when the Cubmaster handed him a shiny third place trophy. 

When we got home, he proudly put his trophy and car on display near the entertainment center. Then he started planning next years car. 

Note: I wrote all but the events of this years derby, before the races started. The final outcome was a happy accident. 


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