How to Survive the Pinewood Derby

“Don’t you want to wait for our son to put the wheels on?” I asked my husband. He looked up at me from the kitchen table, poised with hammer and tiny nail in hand, seemingly perplexed by my question.

“I’ll catch him up later,” he said with a wave. He bent his head back down and hammered a black wheel onto the small blue sports car, the Troy Boltonmobile.

Obey the Law of the Pack

And so it went for much of the preparation for my son’s first Pinewood Derby. A scouting tradition, the Pinewood is an annual racing event where Cub Scouts, with the help of parents, build their own non-motorized cars from wood, usually from kits containing a block of pine, plastic wheels and metal axles. The cars must meet size and weight requirements, but beyond that it’s all fair game. However, because of the need for power tools, the cars are often built mostly by the dads – competitive dads. But it’s good father-son bonding time.

As part of the preparation, the two of them had attended a Pinewood Derby Workshop at a local recreation center. For a few dollars the dads received unfettered use of power tools, sandpaper, chisels and Dremels. The boys could watch but were not allowed near the power tools.

Give Goodwill

The Derby touches on a deep vein of nostalgia for men. On their way home from the workshop, my husband and son stopped by their barbershop, the same place they’ve been going to for five years. Typically they’re treated just like any customer in a busy salon, courteously but basically ushered in and out with the utmost efficiency. However, carrying the Troy Boltonmobile, they were ushered in and treated like royalty. The barbers shared tips, techniques and the secrets of graphite lubricant – all of which my husband lapped up.

At home, my son held his former block of wood high. Their design was sleek and the body was sanded down butter smooth. My son’s biggest contribution was to paint the number 14 on the top. It was all my husband could do not to help him hold the brush.

Tigers, Wolves and Bears, Oh My!

On the big day, my son donned his neckerchief and Bear Clip and we headed out as a family for the big race.

The cars were amazing. Some were sleek with professional-looking paint jobs. Some had special weights glued to the back and aerodynamic styling. Clearly, there was a parent’s influence on many a car.

Our neighbor’s son, Sam, had a car that looked like a platypus, complete with a bill and covered in fur – he called it the Platycar. Obviously, his mom and her craft box had been a strong influence.

“You’re going for laughs more than speed, right?” I asked Sam. He nodded.

My son retrieved his car and we waited for his race. And then we waited some more. All the cars of the entire Cub Scout pack raced on the same day. I asked my husband where the beer truck was. He laughed. There’s a lot of waiting for about 2.5732 seconds of glory. Which brings me to my tips…

How to Survive the Pinewood Derby:

* Arrive late.
* Bring a book or newspaper, or both.
* Load up on caffeine.
* Find a seat near friends or make new ones.
* And lastly, bring tissues.

My son’s (or rather husband’s) car didn’t win. But it raced respectably and the wheels stayed on. Most of all, my son had a good time.

There were other boys who didn’t have such a great time. Some cried when wheels popped off or races were lost. I’m proud to say, though, not a single dad cried – at least not in public. And, when the pack’s speed record was broken, it was a dad who used his outdoor voice, not a boy.

Neighbor boy Sam won the award for Funniest Car. The look of pure joy on his face explained why we were all there. We all learned a lesson, too. Speed isn’t everything. There were also awards for Best Fuel Economy (slowest car), Most Creative and Most Colorful, among others. And isn’t that a lot like life?

“I could’ve won,” my husband said. “I mean we,” he corrected. “Next year, we’ll slope it more and weight it more in the back.” My son agreed, and the race is on again.

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