Title: Pinewood Derby Car Race

Date Occurred: Perhaps 1972...or maybe this is fiction that never occurred.

Date Written: February 5, 2003

Written by: Joel T. Kant

Copyright (c) 2003 by Joel T. Kant


Over thirty years have gone by since this story occurred or perhaps did not occur. If you ask if an unnamed father in the story means this or that specific real man, I do not know. After so long, the characters other than my own parents and myself should be considered composite or imagined, not real people.

When I was in grade school, I was in the Cub Scouts of America. It served as a training and preparation for joining the Boy Scouts of America. I would later find that Boy Scouts had heavy participation by the fathers of various boys, some fathers more than others, but with the mothers staying out of it. For the most part, the Cub Scouts was managed by the mothers with the fathers staying out of it. The great annual exception happened when many fathers became heavily involved with the Cub Scoutís Pinewood Derby. (See Fig. 1)

Pinewood Derby Car

Figure 1: Pinewood Derby car at 45 degrees

[Photograph by Joel Kant]

Boy Scouts involved weekend trips for camping, canoeing, and long hikes. Various fathers did the driving and stayed through the adventures. In contrast, the activities for Cub Scouts tended to focus on small crafts projects performed after school or on a Saturday afternoon. The activities were things that could be done in a couple hours at the home of one of the boys, supervised by one or more of the mothers. I recall painting faces on wood spools, weaving straw for baskets, constructing puppets out of old socks, and gluing dry macaroni to make...something. There was even some beadwork we did. Various boys initially refused to use the beads because they claimed that was a sissy activity suited only for girls. I was not one who had protested, then felt badly because maybe I should have. Was this a sissy activity? That was a terrible concern to a young boy! One of the mothers had come prepared. She showed pictures of male native American warriors, or Indians as we called them then, with necklaces of elaborate beadwork. The complaints vanished instantly, followed by various whooping yells and one boy banging out a rhythm on the table like a drum. That being how we boys thought of Indians, yet there was a fascination too. If the Indians had beads, we would too so we could pretend to be Indians.

There often was some story to tie-it in that week's activity into something historical. How did the early settlers make toys?

This is how it went with the regularly weekly Cub Scout meetings. All these years later, I am greatly impressed by how much work, creativity, and resources the various mothers put into it. Violating the rule of not giving real names, Mrs. Uttermark seemed to put in the most work and was called our Den Mother. As a boy, I never thought of her or the other mothersí contributions. My own mother complained about having to sew patches on my uniform. Not patches to cover holes, but awards and identification patches. There always seemed a new patch for something or other that needed to be added. The thick fabric of the uniform required hand stitching. I did not sympathize with Momís complaint, because as a boy, it was just something I expected mothers to do! It never, ever would occur to me to sew on my own patches. Boys might string beads, but they do not sew! Sigh, the arrogance of youth!

I should mention that a few years later, I was in the Boy Scouts. The manuals and instructor put emphasis on rudimentary sewing skills to reattach buttons, fix torn seams in tents, put a strap back on a backpack, and so on. I had to eat humble pie when I found the Boy Scouts...to my shock and disbelief...encouraged boys to sew! So much for my understanding of what was manly. I find this comical and embarrassing in hindsight.

The routine for Cub Scouts altered drastically when it was time to make the cars for the Pinewood Derby. The descriptive name really means a block of pine about eight inches by three inches by three inches, give or take an inch. Boys were to carve out something that looked like a car from that block. Also included in the kit were four plastic wheels and four nails to attach them. The block had pre-cut slots that the nails worked into, so each car would have the wheels in the same location.

That makes it sound not that much different then the other craft projects put together by the Cub Scouts week after week. There was a big difference, though. Once the cars were done, they were to be raced. The track looked like an oversized Hot Wheels setup, but with four or six tracks in parallel. The only power the cars had came from gravity, with the potential energy converted to kinetic as the cars rolled down a hill, then coasted along a long, flat track.

While it was mainly mothers involved with the beadwork, sock puppets, and the rest, the fathers came out of the woodwork for the Pinewood Derby cars.

I got home with my kit, ready to slap it together, but Dad interceded. He took the block of wood down to his basement workshop. He put two long brazing rods into the slots. These stiff rods were perhaps two and a half feet long. I was confused why he did this and asked. He explained that he wanted to see if the slots were parallel to each other and perpendicular to the side of the car. That simple experiment showed they were not. The deviations were significant. Using the rods was a dramatic and graphic illustration of the problem.

At about eight years old, it never occurred to me that the pre-cut slots were not exactly where they should have been. Dad put in some wood putty in the slots.

Like most young boys, I liked things that I could do now, now, now. Although having to wait drove me crazy, I listened to Dad and let the car sit untouched even though overnight was an eternity to me at that age.

New slots were cut in the next day, going over exactly the same spot, but with the slight deviation to be perfectly perpendicular to the side of the car and the slots parallel to each other. A repeat of the rod test showed that the problem was solved. That this alignment would lead to more speed on the track was obvious even to me at that young age.

Dad had me take a close look at the nails that were meant to attach the wheels. He indicated a small flange on either side. That flange could create pressure and excess friction. Some grinding and polishing by Dad took off the flange. The axes for the wheels were now round and smooth.

A hand drill in a vice plus some very fine sandpaper served as a makeshift lathe. The wheels were trued up, with the mold marks removed. It involved taking only a tiny amount of the plastic away. The wheels were now round and practically flawless.

Then came the cutting of the wood block to look like a car. Dad did the major cuts to get the basic shape with a power tool that I wasn't allowed to use yet. He then guided me as I used various handsaws, whittling, and sandpaper to finish it off. Because of my involvement here, although closely supervised, the shape of the car would not be as perfect as the rest of it. Still, the sanding fixed the worst defects.

After all that came the crucial step. There was a weight limit for the car. Dad poured molten lead into a cavity to get the weight very close to the limit, but not go over it. Back then, Dad had been making lead fishing lures, so he had the lead and propane torch already. People did not seem to fear using lead like many do today. Dad explained how he was allowing just a small margin of error in case his scale didn't match the Cub Scouts' scale.

After this came more sanding and painting. I found the sanding to be time consuming and boring, but I did it as instructed. The painting process was hard for me as a boy due to my impatience, just like the wood putty had been. It was not just painted once. It was primed, lightly sanded, then spray painted in color with two or three thin coats.

It then came to the day of the competition. Most weekly Cub Scout meetings were in a private house with the boys showing up mostly on their own. In that village back then, grade school boys on their own walking a few blocks to a house was not cause for fear. Rather than a private home, the Pinewood Derby competition was in the Biron Village Hall. Entire extended families showed up to watch. A potluck dinner was to be held afterward. Older siblings who treated everything else the Cub Scouts did as kiddy stuff not worthy of notice came to watch with interest. This was a community event.

The cars had to be weighed in. Most of the boys had fathers who had added weight to their cars. A few of the boys had not, building cars entirely on their own. It was immediately obvious on the scale what cars had weight added and which did not.

Several of the cars were slightly over what the Cub Scout scale indicated was the limit. Arguments broke out between the fathers over the accuracy of the Cub Scout scale. All the mothers stayed out of that argument.

My Dad had wisely given a little allowance for variation between scales. My car weighed in at almost exactly the limit on their scale, even though deliberately a little below that on Dad's.

The Cub Scout scale was ruled the one that the cars had to pass, whether it was accurate or not. This lead to a ruckus. However, one of the fathers had brought a power drill. He found an electrical outlet in the corner. He drilled out bits of lead from his boy's car, getting it down to the limit as measured by the Cub Scout scale. That father then let other fathers do the same for their boy's cars. Using that drill, all the cars were made to pass the weight test.

I was sad for the boys who had not added weight to their cars. I knew even before the race started that they had no chance of winning the competition. A definite majority of boys had cars with weight added to close to the limit, though. Most of the cars had weight added with lead, like my father had done. Some had used steel instead. Even for the steel, the drill worked to get those cars down to the limit.

One car had weight added merely by pounding about fifty or so small nails into the bottom. That one just had to have a few nails pulled to get down to the limit on the scale.

People got to see the cars displayed before the races began. Some were beautiful works of art. My car was not the best there in terms of shape or finish. Dad had handled the rough shape of my car with power tools, but he had me do some of the trimming, sanding, and painting. I had done my eight-year-old best, and had under Dad's intense supervision put in patience and effort unlike anything I had done before in my life. Even so, several of the cars looked better than mine. Some were like masterpieces of sculpture. I felt like I had been the failure for my car not looking the best. Surely if Dad had worked on the sanding and finish of my car with as much intensity and with me out of the loop as I had been for adding the lead or straightening the slots, it would have been the best there. I felt clumsy, like I had two left hands.

The competition was not over appearance, though. It was about speed.

I then looked not at the best looking cars, but at the worst. The worst car was just the painted wood block with the wheels pounded in. No cutting or sanding at all. Just slapped on paint with a brush, the brush strokes showing. It was one of the cars with no weight added. Clearly, this was an effort by a boy who did it all on his own. The boy looked ashamed of how his car looked compared to the others. He managed not to cry, but it seemed to take tremendous willpower.

Other cars showed the efforts of boys doing at least some of the work themselves. Fingerprints molded in the paint when still wet were on one. Somebody had been too lazy to sand the wood on another, leading to a rough finish. All that contrasted with other cars that were beautiful enough to put in a museum.

Some of the boys had gone with ornamentation. This included gluing or nailing fake motors, exhaust pipes, and even a plastic man as driver. Most of this clearly grabbed from model car kits or other toys. Being a young boy myself, some of the ornamentation like plastic motors seemed fun to me. However, then I looked at the various fathers going over the track before the race. One father had a bubble level he used with great care. Seeing that effort to make sure the race would be fair, I then realized none of that extra ornamentation would make the cars go any faster. The shape Dad had me make was streamlined and slick. It had about the best possible shape for winning. My car had an elegant simplicity to it.

In the competition, my car was the fastest in race after race. After many races, I had won the entire competition! It was such a strange feeling to win something like this. I could never again claim that I never won anything. This was the pinnacle in that village for what the Cub Scouts had as a competition.

However, then one of the fathers of the boys who had been in second or third place took a hard look at my car. He loudly claimed we had cheated! With intense examination, that father had noticed that the inside of the nails on my car, barely visible in the gap of the wheels, was a uniform silver color. The nails on the other cars were a dull black.

That father accused my father of substituting in different and better nails. It made me furious to hear my father called a cheater when I knew this was not so. Nobody ever considered me, an eight-year-old boy, as having anything to do with the nails looking different on the inside. Of course, that assumption was correct.

Dad explained that he had merely polished the nails that came with the kit. I knew Dad was telling the truth, as I had been down in the shop watching him do just that. Although the accusing father never admitted this was the truth, the other fathers looked closely at my car. They concluded my Dad had done exactly as he had said. These were indeed the same nails. There was nothing in the rules back then prohibiting polishing away the flange on the nails. At least one other father was a machinist by profession, so seemed embarrassed not to have thought of doing that himself, although he had trued the wheels of his boy's car with a real lathe rather than a hand drill in a vice like my Dad had done.

My victory stood, although feeling bittersweet because of the controversy, despite the vindication.

It was also obvious that all the boys who had worked truly alone were out contention after their first race. Their cars were so much slower that it was sad to see. This seemed to have been more a competition for the fathers than the young boys.

Despite that, I had learned much. Dad's slow and methodical approach of checking rather than automatically trusting what came from the manufacturer, polishing, wood putty put in and allowed to set fully before disturbing it, sanding, and the rest was a new way of thinking for me. What I learned from Dad's approach in that victorious Pinewood Derby competition has had much influence on what I have done since in my life whenever I had a task that seemed important enough to take the time to do it as well as I possibly could.

As for the unjust accusation, that showed an ugly side of great parental involvement in an activity like this. However, I think that was balanced out by the other father who had thought to bring his drill. He then generously let his drill be used by any other fathers. If he had refused, as would have been his right, some of the other fastest cars would have been disqualified, increasing the likelihood his boy's car would win. He did not do that, which was an admirable lesson. Given how many cars came out overweight on the Cub Scout's scale, I think that scale was the faulty one. From the perspective of being one of the boys, it was satisfying when all the cars were allowed in the race after some were fixed with the drill. All the boys could participate, and that was nice. Even the car that was merely a painted wood block, not shaped at all, at least got a chance to roll down the track in a race. That meant something, even without a chance of winning.

Once the race was over, the boys took their cars back. Even the cars without added weight or trued wheels were fine as toys, rolled around on the tables when we were supposed to be eating. I think some of the boys enjoyed that play afterward more than the race.

When my younger brothers got old enough to be in Cub Scouts, they also fashioned Pinewood Derby cars with Dadís similarly large-scale help. The people in the Village of Biron had to get used to the Kant boys winning every race. The greatest shock of that seemed to have worn off after my victory, though.


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