Written: April 28, 2020
Added to Site: October 3, 2020
For the uninitiated, the Pinewood Derby is an event in which a Cub Scout takes a small block of official Pinewood Derby wood, along with official Pinewood Derby wheels, and fashions them into an unpowered Pinewood Derby model car to display and race down a forty-two-foot track. Prizes are awarded for design and speed. There is no Mr. Congeniality.
The first Pinewood Derby was held in 1953, a mere seven years before I would compete at the age of nine. The original concept has evolved substantially over the years. Several companies now sell prefabricated bodies with all manner of highly stylized shapes, but in 1960 the official kit was just a boxy-looking piece of wood, seven inches long by two and three-quarters inches wide, and as tall as it was wide. This wood obviously required significant love and care, needing to be shaped by the tools and skills of the owner.
My tools consisted of a pocket knife. Skills? None that I can recall. I got an idea in my mind of what my car should look like and set out to do my whittling. God forbid I actually make a drawing. I just whittled. I’d never whittled anything in my life before that. It took about fifteen minutes before I realized that the pine was putting up a terrible fight and winning. But after slapping on the wheels (I forget how I did this) my car was functional and ready for action.
None of the kids in my den (a “den” being the smallest unit of cub scouts, there seven kids in ours) were showing our cars to each other. We were otherwise a pretty close-knit group, but not when it came to the Pinewood Derby. It wasn’t until about a week before the actual contest that it was announced that there was a full-sized, regulation Pinewood Derby track now set up in Mrs. Ewing’s basement. Mrs. Ewing was our Den Mother, aka adult supervision. Thanks to this particular Den Mother, we’d actually be able to test our creations rather than simply going on blind faith at the real competition. There were actually three or four Dens making use of this track, Mrs. Ewing being a most gracious host.
Full of a nine-year-old’s innocent confidence, I showed up at the Ewing basement not too long after the appointed time. My car was in a shoebox for protection. Both being late and the shoebox turned out to be good things, for when I saw the competition, I was utterly mortified. Next to the cars already there, mine looked like, well, like some uninspired nine-year-old had taken a pocket knife to a block of unfinished wood for fifteen minutes. The other kids had all at least applied paint and added a decal or two. Some had actually made their cars look like real racers! I was less concerned about the best of them as I was with the worst, which still put mine to shame.
I managed to slink out of the Ewing house as soon as I could, never having shown my feeble attempt at craftsmanship. Arriving home, I set out to correct my error. Sadly, this feast of humble pie did nothing to make the pine easier to carve, but on a positive note, I found a can of red Krylon spray-on paint, and some sandpaper, adding both to my toolkit. I whittled, I sanded, more whittling, more sanding, but my patience quickly wore as thin as the strength in my right arm and hand. Withdrawing was not an option. For some reason, going to my dad for advice was also not an option. It might have been a great bonding moment, but it simply wasn’t in my DNA to get help. Neither was putting a reasonable amount of effort into my project. I covered the abomination with a coat of Krylon and decided that, in anticipation of a phrase that would not be coined for another fifty years, it was what it was.
The next day I was at the Ewing’s, armed with a healthy dose of apathy about the appearance of my vehicle. Out it came, to the polite indifference of my friends and the not-so-polite contempt
A Pinewood Derby Car - Not Mine
of others. I stepped up to the high end of the forty-two- foot track, raised four feet above the other end. It fell off sharply, becoming virtually flat less than half way down its length. I placed my car on the track and awaited the force of gravity to do the rest, my first taste of Pinewood Derby competition. The gate opened. The good news was that in this, my first race, I finished in second place. The bad news was that the track only accommodated two cars at a time, and my car stopped before it finished its length.
Fortunately, I had a number of friends who took pity on me and shared some of the accumulated lore of things I might try. For instance, it was perfectly legal to insert weights. Obviously seeing me as no competition, one of my friends gave me some extras he had. There were also certain things I could do to legally lubricate the wheels on the axles. I didn’t know where they got their information, probably from the rule book I never bothered to read, but they were right. I added the weights in the front, carefully ensuring the overall weight of my car was within the legal limit. Graphite, aka pencil lead, was the proper lubricant. Easy enough.
The next day my newly upgraded racer was ready for another round of test competition. Again, I strode to the starting point readying my car and my ego for my next race. This time I not only finished, I lost by only about a foot. The next round I actually won. My handiwork was still butt-ugly, but it worked. I didn’t keep records, but I was seemingly winning as much as I was losing, and so it went until the evening of actual competition.
Some of the entries were utterly gorgeous pieces of art. Bob Schreffler’s entry was off-the-charts awesome. His brother had won the style competition the year before. The consensus was that it was no accident that their father was a professional artist for the General Motors automobile design department. How much of the work had his kids actually done? It mattered not one bit to me. Despite the greatly increased number of entrants over that in the Ewing’s basement, I took an almost perverse pride still having the ugliest entry. It was built for speed.
My turn in round one came soon enough. In front of the entire Pack (a Pack being a group of Dens) I confidently strode to the starting point, and placed my entry on the track. The gate opened. Down the slope it sped until, all too soon, it slowed to a halt about five feet from the finish line. The wheels seemed to be on properly. It was the same, unmistakably ugly racer that I’d come to know and tolerate. What had gone so terribly wrong? Oh yeah, I’d forgotten to add the graphite. Oops.
It was single elimination. There would be no do-over. The best that could be said was that the Pinewood Derby was now behind me, as would soon be the Cub Scouts. Had I stayed in scouting for another year, it would have been as a Boy Scout. None of the kids in the neighborhood went into the Boy Scouts, a consensus decision I wholeheartedly supported.