Pinewood Derby

My son is a Cub Scout, working on his Wolf badge. Every year the pack has the Pinewood Derby. For the uninitiated, which included me up to a month ago, the scouts build little race cars out of wood and have a big race. It sounded innocent enough… until we started reading up on it.

My wife found whole cottage industries devoted to the making of the ultimate Pinewood Derby car. The Pinewood Derby car starts out as a block of wood, some nails and little plastic wheels. You have to start with that, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t run the wood block through your CNC machine. It doesn’t mean you can’t trim the nails down on a lathe. It apparently doesn’t mean you can’t run the whole thing through a wind tunnel to determine the best resistance to airflow. And – of course – it doesn’t mean you can’t go crazy, spending $150 on one of these things, all so you (sorry, your kid) can win a little plastic trophy.

I was determined that I wouldn’t be one of those insane parents who try to live vicariously through their kids. I asked Daniel what he wanted his car to look like. He decided it should look like one of his favorite Hot Wheels cars: a purple race car. Fine. He drew up the plans and we went out to get supplies.

First of all, do you have any idea how hard it is to find purple paint? Flat purple was okay, but Daniel wanted it sparkly. Okay… I finally found a can at Wal Mart, but it was for metal only. We had to buy another can of special primer to prep the wood so we could use the metal spray paint on it.

Then we needed weights. I thought the car had to be less than five ounces. I weighed the block of wood and we were already at three and a half ounces. Not to worry. It turns out that you need to be less than five ounces, but as close to five ounces as possible without going over.

The hobby store in Rockford carries a lot of Cub Scout related merchandise, so after blowing $20 on spray paint, we took a trip over there. We ended up buying a tool set to help smooth out the nails that are used as the axles. We bought some graphite powder (can’t use oil on the derby cars for some reason). We got some extra decals with racing stripes and numbers. We bought some weights. They were small pieces of lead that you can break apart in half ounce chunks. I also bought – for myself – a book on the Pinewood Derby cars. This race had more regulations than NASCAR. So, there went another $40 or so.

Meka cut the large chunks off the wood block with a hacksaw and then Daniel sanded it all down. After that, I took it out in the garage and spray painted it purple. Once it was dry, Daniel put on the stickers and we attached the weights to get it close to five ounces. We tested it by rolling it on the kitchen floor. It rolled; we figured we were good to go.

The Derby was held in the high school cafeteria. The ramp was a pretty impressive affair, stretching the length of two or three tables. A scoutmaster from another pack had brought the track along with a computerized time tracking system run on optical sensors. He told me later it set the pack back more than $500.

Right off the bat, we had some problems. We had placed some of the weights on the bottom of the car. They looked like exhaust pipes. While the car had rolled just fine at home, the track actually has a raised area in the center of each lane. And Daniel’s car was getting stuck. Luckily, they had the “pit crew” standing by. We were able to take the weights off the bottom of the car and use a hot glue gun to stick them to the sides – a la 1965 Corvette Sting Ray.

Note: You never want to grab a hot glue gun by the tip. They don’t call it a hot glue gun for nothing.

So, after I extinguished my fingers and we waited in line to get the car weighed in officially, we got a glimpse at the competition. I have to say that most of the cars were obviously built by the kids with some parental input. That made me feel a lot better about the whole thing. I had been worried as Daniel was already making room for his winning trophy. He figured that he would come in second. I had taken him out to Burger King for dinner (our place to go when it’s just “us men”) and explained that – no matter what place he came in – it was important that he have fun building the car and racing it. He would be a good sport about it.

In the end, I could have saved my breath. Daniel’s car did come in second place and we (er, he) got his plastic trophy.



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